Countries have turned in on themselves during Covid-19. It is alarming the extent to which people now seem to fear their Governments and so many have been silenced into submission.
In the UK, democracy is limited to sticking a cross on a ballot paper every half-decade. Parties have no obligation to honour promises and voters no means to enforce them. Democracy was actually suspended last year. Is this a case of Democracy delayed – democracy denied?
In Switzerland by contrast, campaigners have triggered a referendum to strip the State of new powers to impose lockdowns. In that country, although the petition garnered 86,000 signatures it takes 50,000 signatures to trigger a vote where the outcome will be legally binding. As it is, the Swiss Government has imposed less draconian measures than many other countries, wary of the direct democracy built into their system.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if the home of the World Economic Forum became the one country where people were able to stop future Government restrictions? Just to recap, if – like Switzerland – Britain had direct democracy, there would still be MPs. But between elections, voters could insist a law be submitted to a referendum or propose their own ideas, allowing a democratic outlet for frustrations.
In Switzerland, a country with a population of 8.5 million, 50,000 signatures are enough to insist parliament submits a proposed new government law to a referendum. Popular initiatives can be proposed with 100,000 signatures. The Swiss ensure referendum results are definitive and not open-ended. Signature-gathering is not an overnight task, mitigating flights of fancy and ideas on the fly. Meanwhile, the Swiss vote on legislation and not day-to-day government.
In the UK with our population of some 66.6 million, 5 Star advocates that 350,000 signatures be necessary to challenge existing legislation; that 700,000 signatures be needed to impel a vote on a new Citizen's Initiative; and that a minimum turnout of 10% of the eligible electorate be required to vote in order for the result of the vote to be carried.
Far from negatively impacting minority rights, direct democracy helps Switzerland navigate inter-ethnic relations. Double majorities – where an idea must win over a majority of voters and a majority of cantons (states) – protect minority interests too. Unlike polling – subject to preference falsification and social desirability bias – referendums give a true picture of public sentiment (something many Governments of course fear).
Referendums reflect the wishes of the people on a particular subject which general elections cannot do and are not designed to do. Without our own referendum in 2016 we would never have left the E.U. as all the three largest parties were in favour of remaining. The electorate decided otherwise by a significant majority in a referendum with a turnout of over 70%. That was democracy in action and a salutary reminder to Westminster that it is the people who should make the decisions affecting their lives, not here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians.
Perhaps then it will take a referendum in that small Alpine state to unlock the people there, and to wake people up in the UK and the world to the merits of direct democracy. Switzerland – perhaps the most prosperous country in the Western world – is blazing a trail for others to follow. In the UK the 5 Star Direct Democracy Party are carrying the flag for Direct Democracy “For the People”. Any politician serious about reforming the UK should back Swiss-style direct democracy – a simple idea whose time has come.
Adapted from Brexit Watch.