A few days ago I found this article.

This article, to my mind, is slanted to the common consensus of representative democracy. You just need to read this paragraph:

The second is that elected representatives ought to make those decisions. Those representatives have, it is thereby implied, a greater degree of expertise in doing so. And party politics means that when they are elected those representatives subscribe to a set of policies which will inform how that decision is made. They will not have free rein, once elected to decide how they wish. This is why party discipline, whilst no doubt frustrating for some of the more independent-minded MPs, is a critical component in legitimizing indirect democracy.

In Switzerland the people’s initiative is a powerful tool in the hands of voters enabling them to effect change from below against the will of parliament and government. Most initiatives are defeated at the polls; yet they often have a real influence on politics.

The name ‘people’s initiative’ implies that the tool is wielded by ordinary citizens who are not political office-holders. Every so often there are campaigns which manage to get a proposal put to a vote – and even accepted by the voters – without the support of politicians or powerful lobbies. They just succeed by having a popular topic and putting in a lot of hard work. One example was the initiative curtailing the statute of limitations, where a citizen group got acceptance for tougher legislative provisions on sexual offences involving children.

In most cases initiatives are launched by established organisations, pressure groups, or political parties themselves. In recent times there has been repeated criticism to the effect that initiatives are being misused by parties to campaign on political issues, coupled with the fact there are also voices being heard to the effect that too many initiatives are being launched. According to this point of view, the bar needs to be raised, such as by increasing the number of signatures required (currently it’s at least 100,000 to be collected within 18 months). Criticism of the people’s initiative is as old as the people’s initiative itself. That politicians are not keen on the idea of political decisions being made without them is hardly surprising as people’s initiative curtails the influence of office-holders and those who lobby them. On the other hand, it provides an extra channel whereby new proposals and interests that might otherwise not get a hearing can be brought into the political process. The people’s initiative not only helps new ideas get through the resistance of established forces, but it is also an important mechanism of political integration.

On November 26, 1989, Swiss politicians got a shock. The people were voting on a proposal to abolish the army. In the end, the proposal from a citizens’ group was turned down. There was consternation and indignation, however, about the amount of support the initiative proposal received in spite of the radical nature of the proposal: 36% of voters came out in favour of getting rid of the Swiss army altogether.

It might seem paradoxical when it could be argued that a 64% rejection for an initiative means a drubbing for the promoters of the proposal. Not so in this case. To the military and political elites, it felt like a drubbing for them that over a third of the voters wanted to get rid of the army. However the result had consequences, too: the army, which had been regarded as a “sacred cow” throughout the Cold-War era, seemed to be being treated with much less consideration. When the same pacifist group organised another initiative in the mid-1990s to ban the export of military products, the government and parliament reacted quickly: they toughened the legislation on arms sales, so as to take the wind out of the abolitionists’ sails. This strategy worked: the initiative was voted down – just over 20% were in favour this time.

When the idea of the initiative as a way of amending the constitution was introduced, over 400 such initiatives have been launched. A large number of these never reached the people for a vote, because the required number of signatures were not gathered, or the initiative was withdrawn before voting day. Of the 209 initiatives that voters actually voted on, upwards of 90% failed to pass.

Digressing slightly, this link gives statistics on referendums from 1893 to 2016.

Yet as the initiatives on abolishing the army and banning arms sales show, proposals that go down to defeat can still have an effect. The Swiss Parliament may propose an alternative to the initiative, and the voters then have to choose between the two. Or it may make an indirect counter-proposal by amending relevant legislation. Or the effect may simply be that an issue gets discussed and is brought to national attention – what is not to like?

Another example: The Swiss farmers’ lobby launched a food security initiative to enshrine a statement in the constitution that the government would support the supply of home-grown products. This triggered a counter-proposal that did not go so far and just said in principle that the government should protect the basis of agricultural production and foster a market-oriented farming sector effective in its use of resources. In September 2017, however, the voters actually went for the original initiative. Now, whether the constitutional amendment will have any real effect is somewhat doubtful. But the farmers with their initiative at least achieved the result that the politicians had to talk up the issue of food-supply sovereignty for several years.

Other lobby groups that launch initiatives could well follow the same strategy. For example, the healthcare initiative from the leading nurses’ association, which calls for promotion of suitable training and remuneration for healthcare workers. Or the cyclists’ initiative by the lobby Pro Velo, which wants more cycle paths throughout the country.

The people’s initiative is a radical tool in comparison with the options for constitutional action available in most Western representative democracies. It is a means of effecting change from below. There are few limits to what it can be about. Initiatives often call for very basic changes in existing legislation, so that every three months there can be a chance of a minor revolution.

The people’s initiative not only helps new ideas get through the resistance of established forces, but it is also an important mechanism of political integration. Initiatives by nature go against the will of the majority in government and parliament and can thus be a thorough nuisance for them. The government ministries must always be prepared for the people to say yes to some constitutional amendment that will upset their best-laid plans. They therefore often seek to meet the demands of initiatives and head them off at the polls with an alternative solution that is not quite as radical.

Legal expert Gabriela Rohner has examined all the people’s initiatives from 1891 to 2010 and shown that these have more often than not failed to win acceptance, but have often had some lasting effect. Over half the initiatives actually voted on led to a change in legislation, either directly by being accepted by the voters or – more frequently – indirectly through a counter-proposal. If all the legislative changes are taken into consideration which were not actually triggered by a people’s initiative but were at least encouraged by one, the success rate is higher still.

Within the UK it could be argued that through the ability of the people to raise their initiative, the influence of office-holders and those who lobby them would be curtailed; likewise that an additional channel would be available to air new proposals and interests which would get a hearing and be brought into the political process, thus bypassing the resistance of ‘established forces’; aka the political dictatorial class, the media and the ‘self-appointed’ commentariat.

It would also provide the people to give voice to show their abhorrence of the underhandedness of our political class. The immediate example which springs to mind is the question of recall of MPs.  That which the Coalition Government promised (page 27) when published had a caveat stating that such a recall had to have the agreement of a parliamentary committee. On the same page was promised 200 all-postal primaries in certain constituencies, something which to my knowledge never took place. Had we had a people’s initiative……..

Had we had direct democracy and the inherent ability to raise ‘people’s initiatives’ it could perhaps be argued that we would not be in the mess we are with Brexit. But then to those who ‘took over’ the idea of direct democracy  and write/talk about it, one could levy the accusation that ‘talk is cheap’. So the question has to be asked: just where does the blame lie for our ‘Brexit Mess’? Politicians who most obviously do not have greater expertise; a media which fails to grasp the complexities of Brexit; a ‘commentariat’ likewise failing to grasp those same complexities; or those who could and should have sown the seeds for a change in our system of democracy?



(With acknowledgement to Swissinfo for the Swiss data )


One thought on “Democracy

  1. Rather interesting to see Oliver Conolly taken aback by the remark –

    ‘Experts should, of course, be respected for their expertise. But no one is an expert where democracy is concerned. Each of us is worth only one vote’ –

    This remark was from journalist Charles Moore, which Conolly judges – ‘places expertise below democracy’. My question is who on earth could doubt the wisdom of what Moore said?

    Equally illuminating is the Conolly remark about the Brexit result – ‘It is well known that it was not binding on Parliament’. Conolly would do well to remember that one of the official government leaflets delivered to all households promised to act upon the result of the referendum. It seems odd to me that Conolly, a QC, seems a bit lax as to what is the formation of a contract.

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