Next week, voters across the UK will finally make their decision on the country remaining in or leaving the European Union. This is only the third UK-wide referendum ever to be held. The first was in 1975, on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community. The second took place in 2011, on a new voting system to replace first-past-the-post.
Although referendums in different parts of the UK have become more commonplace – such as those on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and on Scottish independence in 2014 – they are much less frequent at UK level. This is because of the UK’s tradition of representative democracy, where sovereignty rests with parliament. In Switzerland, however, representative democracy runs parallel to a system of direct democracy, which gives voters the last word on legislation.
The Swiss system
Of all the national referendums held in Western democracies since World War II, more than two-thirds have been held in Switzerland. Swiss voters go to the polls three or four times a year, deciding on issues as varied as immigration, complementary medicine, and financing of local sports facilities. Swiss referendums may be triggered in several different ways:
- Obligatory referendum (following a constitutional amendment or an application to join an international organisation, such as the United Nations or the European Union)
- Optional referendum (puts parliamentary decisions to the popular vote, but only if 50,000 valid signatures are collected within three months)
- Popular initiative (proposers have 18 months to collect 100,000 signatures to force a vote on a particular issue)
- Counter proposal (if parliament disagrees with a popular initiative, it can put forward alternative. Both votes are held at the same time, and if both are approved, the one with the highest number of “yes” votes is the winner)
As one writer on Switzerland has observed,
“…the Swiss people are the final decision-makers on almost every single policy, whether it affects their own neighbourhood or the whole country. This democratic freedom and the right to be heard are inalienable rights for the Swiss, who proudly view them as the source of their stability and prosperity.”
More referendums in the UK? The arguments for and against
On the face of it, any political system which encourages greater citizen participation is to be applauded. Proponents of referendums argue that they are exercises in civic engagement, stimulating debate and increasing interest among people who would usually show no interest in politics.
A good example, in a UK context, is the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The campaign energised voters across the country and the poll itself saw a historic turnout of 84.6%. Despite being on the losing side, both the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Green Party reported a surge in membership in the aftermath of the referendum result.
Supporters of the wider use of referendums also believe they can provide a mandate for specific policies, such as the Republic of Ireland’s vote supporting equal marriage in 2015, and can legitimise important constitutional issues, such as devolution.
However, opponents of the referendum as a democratic tool contend that the issues debated during referendum campaigns can’t be decided by a simple binary choice, or are too complex for the public to understand. Professor Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, has argued that the UK’s membership of the EU should be decided by elected officials with a sound understanding of the major economic issues:
“It is an outrage that people as ignorant as me are being asked to vote. This is a complicated matter of economics, politics, history, and we live in a representative democracy not a plebiscite democracy. This should be a matter for parliament.”
A recent leader article in The Economist noted that referendums may be used by fringe groups or populist parties to exercise outsize influence. In recent years, the nationalist-conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has gained enough signatures to force referendums on issues such as the construction of new minarets for Swiss mosques and the imposition of quotas on immigration. Some in Switzerland believe that these campaigns have damaged the country’s image and incited hostility towards ethnic minorities.
In addition, a narrow decision can raise questions about the legitimacy of the result. The slim margin (50.4%) of Swiss voters supporting immigration quotas in 2014 make it more likely that the country will be asked to vote on the issue again. This could be problematic, with voters potentially becoming fatigued or apathetic if they are asked to vote too often. In the Swiss case, the average voter turnout for all 10 of the elections and referendums held in 2014-2015 was 50.1%, although turnout fluctuated between a high of 63% and a low of 42%.
For some, the EU referendum campaign has shown up the deficiencies in the use of referendums to make momentous decisions – conjecture, claims, counter-claims and inconclusive arguments. For others, it has been an important exercise in direct democracy, giving the people a chance to debate an issue of vital importance to the entire country.
Unlike Switzerland, the UK has an unwritten constitution, and there are no rules on what can trigger referendums. Only in rare cases have British governments put a single issue to the people, a feature of UK politics that is set to continue. Whatever the outcome of next week’s vote, it’s unlikely that the UK will move towards the Swiss system of direct democracy.
If you liked this post, you might also be interested in other blog posts about democracy and referendums:
- Idox Elections: delivering modern democracy
- Democracy, at the touch of a button
Local homes for local people? A referendum in Cornwall could have wider implications for developers of second homes
- Social media: does it influence political participation?