WHILE YESTERDAY’S VOTES should offer the first real glimpse of public opinion since the Covid nightmare began last March the politicians’ commitments will still not be binding upon them.
One drawback of a purely representative democracy is that politicians are able to make promises they have no obligation to keep and which voters have no means to enforce. Contrast both the UK and Scotland with Switzerland. In a matter of weeks (13 June), the Swiss people will get to decide in a referendum whether to back the country’s Covid-19 law, which is being challenged on the grounds that it has shifted too much power away from parliament and towards the executive.
If the Swiss people say no, that is it. No ifs, no buts, and no obstructions or broken promises. Unlike Brexit, a direct command from the people must be obeyed.
To be clear, Switzerland – like the UK and Scotland – has parliamentarians. But in between elections, voters can insist a law supported by parliamentarians is submitted to a referendum – or propose their own ‘initiatives’ to be brought into law. Fifty thousand signatures are enough to insist parliament submits a proposed new law to a referendum. Initiatives can be proposed with one hundred thousand signatures, must only deal with one topic at a time and cannot infringe upon fundamental rights. The Swiss ensure referendum results are definitive, not open-ended. Signature-gathering is not an overnight task, mitigating against flights of fancy and ideas on the fly. Meanwhile, people vote on legislation, not day-to-day government.
As it is, the Swiss Government has imposed less draconian measures than most other countries during the pandemic, wary no doubt of the direct democracy built into its system. According to one poll by the Sotomo Research Institute late last year, 55 per cent of Swiss people were concerned about individual freedoms being restricted. The Covid-19 Act in September gave authorities a continuing legal basis to impose restrictions. Before that, the Swiss Government had to use emergency decrees under the Epidemics Act. These powers were time-limited and subject to parliamentary oversight.
A recent survey by the same institute found a majority of Swiss people back their Government’s handling of the crisis but around 30 per cent say they had “little” or “very little” confidence. While most parts of the law under discussion are limited until the end of 2021 there exists a basis for the reintroduction of emergency rule if necessary, but only after consultation with several bodies. Those who are against the Swiss Government fear the law could be a slippery slope towards authoritarianism. Direct democracy is agnostic about ideology however, and just as important as the result is the fact citizens get to have a direct vote at all.
Far from being a hotbed of mob rule, Switzerland has proved itself to be just about the most business-friendly, prosperous and stable country in the Western world. Plus, it isn’t in the EU. The British Government might talk up the roadmap to freedom, but the ambiguous language, hiring of Covid marshals, huge advertising budget going into 2022, extension of Covid laws and the furlough scheme may suggest something else. As for punishing politicians in 2024, by then the damage may well have been done. After all the talk about legal challenges – which sadly seem to have had little impact – perhaps it is one central European Alpine country which will show us the unequivocal one-way route back to freedom.
And for all the talk of separatist referendums in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that divide us, one referendum that could unite the country is where they are used to prevent or procure new laws that the public care strongly about and cannot leave for the politicians to decide.