Di­vided by opin­ion

The de­ci­sion of the Bri­tish elec­torate to re­ject mem­ber­ship of the EU via a ref­er­en­dum vote has brought po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic may­hem. Alas­dair Soussi looks at the case for di­rect democ­racy. What do re­cent ex­pe­ri­ences at the bal­lot box say about the heal

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Alas­dair Soussi is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who has worked across Africa, Europe and the Mid­dle East.

The po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and so­cial fall­out from Bri­tain’s shock de­ci­sion to leave the Euro­pean Union on June 23 con­tin­ues to send shock­waves across the fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal spec­trum.

As Bri­tain’s “Leave” cam­paign­ers cel­e­brated their sur­prise vic­tory – and the prospect of a UK dis­en­tan­gled from EU rules and reg­u­la­tions af­ter what is ex­pected to be more than two years of ne­go­ti­a­tions – crit­i­cism mounted as to the abil­ity of the Bri­tish elec­torate to de­cide on such a seis­mic con­sti­tu­tional is­sue.

An on­line UK pe­ti­tion call­ing for a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum gar­nered more than four mil­lion sig­na­tures. In­deed, eye­brows were raised when Google re­vealed that the sec­ond most pop­u­lar EU-re­lated Bri­tish in­for­ma­tion re­quest from the search en­gine – fol­low­ing the ref­er­en­dum re­sult – was “What is the EU?”

No sooner was the fi­nal 52 to 48 per cent re­sult an­nounced than Con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter David Cameron, de-facto leader of the pro-EU “Re­main” cam­paign, re­signed. A new Con­ser­va­tive leader – and, in turn, Bri­tain’s next premier – is ex­pected to be in­stalled on Septem­ber 9.

“What we’re see­ing now in the UK is a lot of emo­tion, es­pe­cially from peo­ple who voted to stay [in the EU] ques­tion­ing a lot of things,” says Thomas Lund­berg, of the School of So­cial and Po­lit­i­cal Sciences at the Univer­sity of Glas­gow, Scot­land, who added that this “emo­tion” was “mag­ni­fied by the shock that most of the polling to­wards the end was look­ing more like it was go­ing to be a vote to stay [in the EU]”.

“Some peo­ple are ques­tion­ing whether the elec­torate knew what they were vot­ing on… or whether the UK par­lia­ment could over­turn [the re­sult] or whether there could be an­other ref­er­en­dum,” says Lund­berg. “I don’t think it’s wise to go down this route, es­pe­cially nowa­days when vot­ers in democ­ra­cies… think that pop­u­lar sovereignty means some­thing.”

Fi­nan­cial mar­kets re­main in tur­moil, the Bri­tish pound at one point hit a 31-year low against the US dol­lar, while the fu­ture of EU na­tion­als liv­ing in the UK, and UK na­tion­als res­i­dent in the EU, is un­cer­tain. For many of Bri­tain’s pro-Euro­peans wed­ded to the idea of a sin­gle Euro­pean mar­ket and the free­dom to travel, the coun­try’s de­ci­sion to quit the 28-mem­ber EU bloc rep­re­sented a cri­sis not seen in re­cent Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal his­tory.

In the UK, po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions have con­sumed the Bri­tish pub­lic over the past two years. On Septem­ber 18, 2014, the peo­ple of Scot­land voted against state­hood by 55 to 45 per cent in the na­tion’s his­toric Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum. Last year, the UK gen­eral elec­tion de­liv­ered the first ma­jor­ity Con­ser­va­tive Party gov­ern­ment since 1992, and in May this year vot­ers across Scot­land, Wales and North­ern Ire­land went to the polls for their na­tional par­lia­men­tary and as­sem­bly elec­tions.

Yet, while the Bri­tish peo­ple are cur­rently in the midst of suf­fer­ing from “voter fa­tigue” – af­ter hav­ing to de­cide on so many po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions, in­clud­ing two life-chang­ing con­sti­tu­tional is­sues, within such a short time frame – other democ­ra­cies are all too used to en­gag­ing their cit­i­zens in fre­quent pop­u­lar de­ci­sion-mak­ing. In con­trast to Bri­tain with its rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy sys­tem, where cit­i­zens elect rep­re­sen­ta­tives to leg­is­late on their be­half, Switzer­land’s form of di­rect democ­racy has emerged as one of the most cu­ri­ous and – for many – purest forms of po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing in the world.

In Switzer­land, pop­u­lar ref­er­en­dums, on ev­ery­thing from im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy to the ex­ten­sion of hol­i­days, are voted on with reg­u­lar­ity. Swiss vot­ers are en­ti­tled to con­test an act of par­lia­ment and launch a ref­er­en­dum, pro­vided they gather 50,000 sig­na­tures within 100 days of the new law’s pub­li­ca­tion. And a 100,000-sig­na­ture thresh­old must be met should the peo­ple of Switzer­land wish to pro­pose an amend­ment to the con­sti­tu­tion. It is a sys­tem of democ­racy that pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor Ge­org Lutz of the Univer­sity of Lau­sanne says has “be­come part of Swiss po­lit­i­cal cul­ture”.

“Peo­ple re­ally be­lieve in it, po­lit­i­cal par­ties be­lieve in it and in­ter­est groups are very happy with it,” says Lutz. “For them, it’s just one means, among oth­ers, to in­flu­ence de­ci­sion-mak­ing.”

For Lutz, ques­tion­ing the suit­abil­ity of vot­ers to de­cide on the likes of Bri­tain’s EU mem­ber­ship is anath­ema to the demo­cratic process and the rights of the cit­i­zenry to make per­sonal judge­ments on is­sues af­fect­ing their fu­ture.

“If you don’t trust peo­ple to make a Yes or No de­ci­sion, or in the UK’s case, a Leave or Re­main de­ci­sion, how do you trust peo­ple to de­cide who their lead­ers are?” says the Swiss aca­demic. “The fun­da­men­tals of democ­racy are that peo­ple can take de­ci­sions… no mat­ter how ed­u­cated they are or how wealthy they are. That is a big achieve­ment. And if you don’t re­ally trust vot­ers to take de­ci­sions, then you are ques­tion­ing the fun­da­men­tals of democ­racy.”

Lutz says the Swiss elec­torate has rarely quib­bled with the demo­cratic le­git­i­macy of a ref­er­en­dum vote – no mat­ter how close the re­sult. And An­dreas Gross, a for­mer mem­ber of the Swiss Par­lia­ment, says the cur­rent ques­tions of le­git­i­macy sur­round­ing Bri­tain’s de­ci­sion to exit from the EU are largely based on the UK’s in­fre­quent use of the di­rect democ­racy-style pop­u­lar ref­er­en­dum. He also ques­tions the bal­ance of Bri­tain’s demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal sys­tem vis-à-vis the coun­try’s Brexit vote.

“When you es­tab­lish a well-bal­anced, finely-tuned di­rect democ­racy you will de­cide very rarely on su­per big is­sues which have such deep, large and dra­matic con­se­quences like Brexit,” says Gross, a renowned po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist. “You would in­stead vote on im­mi­gra­tion, de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion, a more in­clu­sive re­gional and ru­ral pol­icy, the in­crease of the so­cial state, a more worker-friendly econ­omy, a more cit­i­zen-friendly tax pol­icy – all pol­icy el­e­ments which went wrong in the eyes of many Bri­tish peo­ple and which united them to vote for a Brexit.”

That said, and with Swiss voter turnout of­ten on the low side, is there such a thing as too much democ­racy? Yes, says Lund­berg. He has the view that “peo­ple def­i­nitely want to be in­volved [in the demo­cratic process], they want to have their say, they want to be heard, but it doesn’t mean that ev­ery­body wants to be an ex­pert on ev­ery­thing and con­stantly be in­volved all the time”.

In­deed, such weighty demo­cratic de­ci­sions can also have un­in­tended con­se­quences. The Brexit vote may have pro­pelled the UK to­wards the EU exit door af­ter a decades-long as­so­ci­a­tion, but it has also put two other Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal con­tro­ver­sies front and cen­tre. While Eng­land and Wales recorded ma­jor­ity Leave votes, Scot­land and North­ern Ire­land voted Re­main, with the for­mer reg­is­ter­ing a hefty 62 per cent sup­port for the EU.

These re­sults prompted North­ern Ire­land’s na­tion­al­ist deputy first min­is­ter Martin McGuin­ness to call for an Ir­ish unity poll be­tween it and EU-mem­ber, the Repub­lic of Ire­land, and Scot­land’s na­tion­al­ist first min­is­ter, Ni­cola Stur­geon, to state that a sec­ond Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum was now “highly likely”. The prospect of Scot­land – the UK’s sec­ond-largest con­stituent na­tion – re­turn­ing to the polls for an­other say on its con­sti­tu­tional fu­ture was given cred­i­bil­ity when sev­eral opin­ion polls fol­low­ing the Brexit vote recorded ma­jori­ties for in­de­pen­dence.

“These con­se­quences are ones that many peo­ple might not have thought through com­pletely – and the [Bri­tish] gov­ern­ment didn’t think some of these things through and ‘Brex­i­teers’ didn’t think these things through ei­ther,” says Lund­berg. “So, when it comes to Scot­land, I am start­ing to think that there’s a pos­si­bil­ity that we will see an­other in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum.”

Whether it is Bri­tain’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy or Switzer­land’s di­rect democ­racy, no one po­lit­i­cal sys­tem has all the an­swers. While UK vot­ers were given a gen­uine demo­cratic op­por­tu­nity to de­cide on a big con­sti­tu­tional is­sue, some dis­grun­tled Re­main sup­port­ers main­tain that vot­ers were al­most duped into ad­vo­cat­ing a course of ac­tion that, de­spite protes­ta­tions to the con­trary, is un­likely to be re­versed. And even in Switzer­land, with its demo­cratic-to-the-max form of po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment, flaws are present. Low voter turnout and, as Gross opines, the propen­sity of the bet­ter-off and bet­ter ed­u­cated in Swiss so­ci­ety to en­gage in the demo­cratic process more of­ten than the less well-off and less ed­u­cated, “makes those who par­tic­i­pate not al­ways very rep­re­sen­ta­tive for all those who are [im­pacted] by a de­ci­sion, and this is demo­crat­i­cally a real prob­lem”.

Yet, democ­racy – whether in Bri­tain, Switzer­land or else­where – is all about rights. And, for that, the last word goes to Lutz.

“If you would ask [a Swiss voter], ‘You didn’t par­tic­i­pate [in a par­tic­u­lar vote], so do you think we should have less di­rect democ­racy?’, they wouldn’t say, ‘Yes!’. They still like their rights, even if they don’t use them.”

Neil Hall / Reuters

A woman holds a ban­ner ridi­cul­ing po­lit­i­cal fig­ures dur­ing a ‘March for Europe’ demon­stra­tion in Lon­don on July 2, against Bri­tain’s de­ci­sion to leave the Euro­pean Union.

Wal­ter Bieri / EPA

A woman walks past a ref­er­en­dum poster urg­ing vot­ers to re­ject a pro­posal against mass im­mi­gra­tion in Lucerne, Switzer­land, in Fe­bru­ary 2014. The pro­posal to in­tro­duce im­mi­gra­tion quo­tas, one of the key is­sues in the UK’s re­cent EU ref­er­en­dum, was...

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