Direct Democracy and Helvetophilia

I’m writing this blog entry in respect to a Twitter exchange I’ve had. In the context of an exchange on Direct Democracy and Switzerland, it would appear that my correspondent has trawled the news for some ‘dirt’ on Switzerland and come up with a story on apartheid in Switzerland. The same news story was found by a friend of mine some time ago and we had an exchange on the subject on Facebook.
 
 
The following text is based on my comment in reply to his post, although I’ve fleshed it out in the context of this standalone piece for my blog.
 
Well, there are a couple of things to point out. Firstly, if this were an article in the Daily Mail, it would have scorn poured upon it by many on the Left. It’s a gross misrepresentation of a story. Nothing to do with Direct Democracy, other than the fact that locals could actually overturn the decision.
 
This is an issue local to the town of Bremgarten, which has recently opened a new asylum centre – not a national policy. Switzerland is a confederation, where power is only assumed by a higher political level where necessary. The tendency is very much to push power as far as possible to the cantonal and communal level. Interestingly, according to http://www.blick.ch/news/politik/badi-verbot-fuer-asylsuchende-id2396083.html, the director of social affairs, Susanne Hochuli, who is a Green party member, has stated
 
“The tight regulations don’t worry me at all. If asylum-seekers come to Switzerland, we’re not obliged to roll out the red carpet for them.”
 
Racist!
 
It is supposedly a compromise agreement suggested by the Federal Office for Migration (BFM) to get the public on side over the new centre. Nevertheless, the article goes on to point out that the agreement is not legal, so this is in fact, legally speaking, a non-starter. In fact, I’m sure that many will also be pleased to hear that David Roth, president of the Young Socialists, has offered to hand out free entry tickets to the swimming pool to asylum seekers and to go swimming with them. So, despite the Independent’s attempt to make this sound like a big story, it’s a rather typically inflammatory bit of an attempt to make a story more significant than it is.
 
On the wider, anti-Direct Democracy point, by all means call Switzerland a failure if you consider that the following factors make it so:
  • A population of more than 25% foreigners
  • An unemployment rate of less than 3%
  • A history of non-intervention in foreign wars
  • A history of the public voting for what would be considered both left and right-wing policies in the past (see the voting records). Do you oppose these, for instance?:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21647937 (referendum which has passed)
    http://binews.org/2013/08/switzerland-initiative-claims-enough-signatures-to-trigger-a-referendum-on-big (initiative which will trigger an upcoming referendum)
  • Strict environmental policies
  • Excellent public transport
  • A record of tolerance for those fleeing persecution
  • An enlightened approach to drugs, prostitution, and care of the dying
  • A country used as a base for countless international organisations
  • The country in which the Red Cross was founded
  • A country which consistently ranks as one of the best places to live and has one of the highest standards of living in the world
  • A country, which, despite Hitler’s plans for Operation Tannenbaum, resisted invasion through its strong military deterrent and ‘Redoubt’.
  • All this, despite it being outside the EU and a country with no natural resources and unfavourable terrain.
Most importantly, it’s a country in which no voter is disenfranchised and every vote counts… at all times. If that’s failure, can I have some failure too, please?
 
If we had Direct Democracy in this country and the anti-war crowd are right about levels of public opposition, there would have been no war in Iraq. Similarly, if so many are against student fees, they wouldn’t have happened.
 
Direct Democracy means, however, that you don’t always get your way. There’s no difference from representative democracy there though. What it does mean is that the public knows absolutely that they are ultimately responsible for their own destiny.
 
When the Swiss stop asylum seekers from entering the country, there may be reason to cry foul, although running at nearly twice the rate of other nations in Europe (a fact which speaks volumes in itself, both as a desirable destination for asylums seekers and as a mark of Swiss tolerance), and in a population of 8 million people, there may always be local factors of which we’re unaware. Bear in mind that any decision by a politician could be overturned by the public too, so, if you can convince enough people of your opinion through reasoned dialogue and public discussion, your side can win the day and overturn the decisions of politicians.
 
I think that on balance, if you look at the Swiss track record, you’d be surprised at how ‘progressive’ they’ve been in the past. They even considered abolishing the military in three referendums. For a nation in which the military plays a massive role in everyone’s life, that’s quite a big deal!
 
I’m yet to hear an argument levelled against Direct Democracy which couldn’t either be levelled at representative democracy or which criticises Direct Democracy on the basis that it isn’t a ‘perfect’ solution, as though our current system were!
 
A commonly cited drawback is that the electorate doesn’t have the requisite skills to make important political decisions. Well, for starters, that seems to imply that a) our current politicians always act in the interests of the country at large rather than in their own political interests and b) that our politicians always make good decisions. It doesn’t need me to point out the flaws in these assumptions.
 
In any case, the Swiss system addresses this concern by operating as a semi-Direct Democracy. Essentially, there is still a political system as we recognise it. The key noticeable difference is that it works as a perpetual coalition, comprising a government representing all parties elected to parliament, along the lines of a so called ‘magic formula’, and therefore acts at core in the interests of the country rather than in the ideological whims and interests of whichever single party or small coalition happens to be in power.
 
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the current UK system is a system based on adversarial rather than collaborative politics; the physical layout of the parliament is set out in such a manner. The key aim of a political party in the UK is to gain full executive power and to retain it as long as possible. During its period in power, it must make decisions which are aimed to keep its own electorate on side and gain additional support from other sections of the electorate. This means that a government does not always operate in the best interests of the country, but in the best interests of its re-election.
 
I can’t possibly say that our current representative democracy has ever worked properly in my eyes, and I’m yet to meet someone who is fully content with it. There has never been a government in power with whom I’ve fully agreed. At least I’d know my voice would count on every issue under Direct Democracy – and not just once every five years. Yet I still regularly encounter others who arrogantly assume that the public is incapable of making sensible decisions. The successful example of Switzerland puts paid to such claims. The very fact that the Swiss electorate has power seems to lead to a more serious and realistic appraisal of decision-making, and this starts at the communal (level), at the cantonal level, and finally the national level. Villages are responsible for their own budgets and the populations understand when they need to raise taxes and to what end.
 
Despite my gut feeling that, as people feel further disenfranchised by our existing representative democracy, we will inevitably move to becoming a Direct Democracy in the UK, I’ve given up believing that this country will reform its antiquated and undemocratic system in the near to medium-term future. There are still too many vested interests in maintaining the status quo. It looks like one possible alternative long-term plan may be at risk though too.
 
Note, however, that any Swiss decision to back out of the treaty on freedom of movement with the EU will only see them back to the position they were in a few years ago (when I worked there), and it will be a decision made by and in the best interests of the Swiss people, because ultimately, political systems should be geared up to represent the interests of the population of a country at large – not the interests of domestic or foreign political parties, ideologues or small interest groups – at the expense of the majority of the domestic population. And as an independent state outside the EU, Switzerland still retains that simple luxury.
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European Union still sounds like a good idea?

Two recent events have made me grateful for the UK’s somewhat hesitant approach regarding closer European Union integration. The first is the economic situation in Greece. The second is current stand-off in relations between Switzerland (itself not a member of the EU, but a signatory of the Schengen Agreement) and Libya.

In the first instance, The wealthier countries in the Euro Zone (notably Germany) will be obliged to bail Greece out of its financial quagmire whilst still trying to bring their own economies back in line. That is going to hurt ordinary people in Germany at a time when it is still paying for reunification (levied through an additional tax of 5.5% of each taxpayer’s income – after income tax), twenty years after reunification.

The prospects for other countries in the Euro Zone, such as Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and particularly Latvia, do not look much better.

Here in the UK, our own finances are far from rosy, but at least we have far more power to regulate our own economy to suit our own requirements than the members of the Euro Zone do.

Regarding the second issue over the tensions between Switzerland and Libya, the escalation in the standoff between the two nations has resulted in all signatories of the Schengen Agreement being obliged to implement a Schengen area travel ban on senior Libyan officials (including former Boney M singer, Colonel Gaddafi). Italy is not particularly happy about this, as it is trying to retain good relations with Libya over energy supplies and to stem the flow of African immigrants into southern Italy through closer cooperation with Libya on this issue.

For me, these issues highlight the importance of a country’s independence in matters of finance and diplomacy. Whilst it is true that multi-national companies and global financial markets are what truly determine the performance of countries’ economies, it remains within the capabilities of politicians to seek to regulate the terms under which these operate in order to protect the interests of the state and its citizens – in the UK at least. In the Eurozone, the hands of individual countries’ politicians are tied, and whilst politicians in the UK are not the most popular people at the moment, they are at least elected (well, the ones in the lower house are anyway).

Similarly, what would previously have been a bilateral issue for Switzerland and Libya to resolve between themselves has now dragged most of the Continent into a battle of wills, in a way which is reminiscent of the political folly of the old system of alliances which dragged us into World War One; not that the current spat between the Swiss and the Libyans is likely to go quite that far. Ironically, the UK, which hasn’t had the best of relationships with Libya in the past, not being a signatory of the Schengen Agreement, is outside this battle of wills.

I am a lapsed Federal Europhile. I bought into the whole European federalist ideal for good reasons. I concede that there are benefits to EU membership. I recognise that from a pan-European standpoint, EU membership has transformed the economies and living standards of southern European states, Ireland, and thanks to tax payers’ money from the wealthier nations, more recently it is doing the same in eastern Europe (we shalln’t dwell on the fact that British tax payers effectively funded the export of hundreds of skilled Peugot jobs from Ryton near Coventry to Slovakia to take advantage of the cheaper running and employment costs in Slovakia). The wealthier nations within the EU have invested in these countries’ economies, where labour has often been cheaper. I was delighted when we signed up to Maastricht Treaty and completely bought into a federal Europe of regions, based on the concept of subsidiarity.

Unfortunately, in the eighteen years since sweeping reforms of the EU were promised, little has changed and the principle of subsidiarity has all but been ignored. There have been token efforts to give the European Parliament more powers, thereby making the one constituent part of EU government which is directly elected by EU citizens slightly more useful. The Commission still retains far too much power and the fact that the appointed Commission can dictate to our government (derived from our parliament) tells you all you need to know.

The EU has also more than doubled in size from 12 to 27 member states, diluting the influence of constituent states and necessitating reforms in an attempt to introduce qualified majority voting on key decisions rather than the formerly required unanimity – all without any consultation of UK citizens, when such a decision, which has a huge effect on our influence within the EU clearly should have been subject to a referendum.

I now have particular issues with two aspects of the development of the European Union. The first is implied in its name and is explicit in the Maastricht Treaty, in which the signatories are “…RESOLVED to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity…”. In spite of that commitment to subsidiarity (all too absent in reality), whichever way you look at it, this is a dilution of democracy. We citizens have absolutely no powers to remove the European Commission, which is in practice responsible for most of the decisions emanating from the European Union bodies which affect us. And I’m not referring to the silly tabloid stories about straight bananas or crisp flavours, but important decisions which have legal precedence over our own country’s laws. We have no direct power over who can and can’t be members of the Commission and the unfortunate truth about many who have gone on to become commissioners is that they have, shall we say, questionable pasts in their own domestic political spheres.

After spending time living on the Continent, it’s easy to get swept away on the notion that closer European political integration will lead to a more continental style of life in the UK, where UK citizens appreciate café culture and philosophical discussions rather than chats about beer and football. But, increasing converging European integration will not lead to such a development. Instead, it will have exactly the opposite effect. It will mean that regardless of the country you visit within the United States of Europe, all the high streets will look exactly the same (many would say that they do already) and that really is a shame. Vive la différence!

Closer EU integration will not change the nature of the British psyche. You can’t change a nation’s world view through political integration. Peoples’ views change through exposure to those from other cultures and this happens, not through seeking to melt all the different cultures into one, but through experiencing other people and traditions in their own contexts, through travel and contact with other cultures.

The second major issue I have with the development of the European Union is the fact that the idea of a single, federal European Union has missed the boat by about 50 years. When Winston Churchill called for a United States of Europe (and he wasn’t including the UK in this proposed United States of Europe, by the way) the world was a very different place, and Europe had ravished by war and internal conflict for centuries. There was a desire on the part of many to foster closer European integration so that such horrific events could not be revisited on future generations. Many claim that this desire itself and the following acts towards closer political integration are what have maintained peace within Europe over the second half of the 20th century (putting the conflicts in Yugoslavia to one side). It would be foolish to dismiss this sincere desire for peace within Europe, but it is not the European project, but NATO and the threat from communism which really maintained the peace since the end of World War 2. The European project merely happened and was helped along against this backdrop.

The key to peace after World War 2 was the very real threat of Mutually Assured Destruction between the NATO countries on the one side and the countries under the Soviet influence on the other. When the Berlin Airlift was organised in 1948, the citizens of West Berlin (and consequently the states in the soon to be German Federal Republic) were left in no doubt as to who their allies were. Once the lines were drawn and the Iron Curtain established, the spheres of influence were set and it was the potential Soviet threat which bound the countries of the West together – not the European Union.

Communication and technology have made the world a much smaller place than it was fifty years ago and we should not be looking to forge a political union with our neighbours, but we should be looking further afield, to the emerging economies of India, China, and also those of the Commonwealth, and seeking to establish further trade links with these countries, as well as returning to developing our own domestic industries in all sectors once again, especially manufacturing, so that we can source products and services locally wherever possible.

The minimum wage may have sounded like a great idea in theory, but in practice it simply prices makes the UK too expensive as a manufacturing base. Our workforce will always be more expensive than workers overseas, and whilst this is true, the jobs will go overseas. You can deal with this in three ways:

1. Isolationism and protectionism. Make imports massively expensive (we can’t do that as part of the EU).
2. Eliminate the minimum wage.
3. Develop core specialities – things our citizens can do better than any other country, and really sell those skills to the world – not just within the EU.

We have a model democracy in the UK. It is one which has been copied throughout the world. It is not without its faults, but it has been consistent for centuries, whereas many of our neighbours have changed regimes incessantly, running between republics, empires, dictatorships, monarchies – some (like France) within decades. We have a system enshrined around long-standing and well-tested principles. We have a fundamentally different view on issues of law which suit our culture. Any attempt to depose this with some kind of Napleonic code of law would not suit our own culture, nor that of many of our neighbours. Our strength is in variety.

In an international context, a single European voice may carry more weight than the voice of the UK on its own, but what if the single European voice is diametrically opposed to the views of the UK? Are we really better off?

My academic background is in Modern Languages (based around politics and current affairs), which I studied at university. I have lived and worked for a reasonable amount of time on the Continent. I like our fellow Europeans, but I like them for the variety in culture, traditions, and world outlooks. It would be a sad day if that were lost in the name of creating a European super state, which most people in the UK do not want. I am angry that a generation of voters who voted for a free market in the early 1970s were deceived by successive governments who have moved (without public consent) towards political union – and you only have to speak to those who voted in favour to hear how angry they are now. I am even more angry that subsequent generations have had absolutely no say on the matter.

At a time where technology and disillusionment with our current political leaders is leading to a decentralisation of politics, and would appear to be heading towards people power, it makes no sense to continue to forge ahead with a European super state, supported by few of the citizens of Europe.

A few months ago I particularly enjoyed a throwaway comment by a member of the panel on Question Time. Her comment was “We need to be inside the European Union. We don’t want to be a country like Switzerland or Norway”. If she had wanted to argue the point against continuing membership of the EU, she couldn’t have done it better. You don’t pick two countries which are consistently ranked in the top ten highest standards of living in the whole world!

Both Switzerland and Norway enjoy the benefits of EU membership through bilateral agreements with the EU, without ceding political power to unelected bodies in foreign countries. If they’re an example of how it shouldn’t be done, then I’m all in favour!

Swiss vote to ban the building of minarets

The Swiss vote to ban the building of minarets is a surprise outcome, and believers in multiculturalism won’t like it, but the Swiss have an admirably democratic system (arguably the best in the world), based on direct democracy, which many so-called libertarians fear, because it expresses the will of the people rather than the will of a few arrogant politicians and lobby groups with a superiority complex and a belief that they are the moral custodians of the nation.

The Swiss are a well-informed and politically-engaged people (because they wield real political power). Historically, they have voted responsibly and contrary to what would be considered ‘populist policies’, such as the reintroduction of the death penalty, but clearly, this issue of minarets has struck a nerve with the average Swiss voter.

Contrary to popular belief, Switzerland is actually quite cosmopolitan. Within its own borders, the country has four official languages and ethnic groups (German, French, Italian, and Romansh) and a confederalist approach to everything (i.e. political decisions are made at the lowest possible level, and only issues which are of national significance are made at national level).

I lived in Switzerland for a total of a year over three seasons working in Swiss hotels, got to know the people reasonably well, and took an interest in how a country I came to admire was governed.

The Swiss are not vested with a great sense of humour, but they are objective to the point of obsession (reflected in their neutrality). In spite of political efforts to push towards EU membership, the people have persistently rejected any such moves, preferring to retain bilateral agreements with the EU and opt-in to EU initiatives where it is beneficial, such as the Schengen Agreement on the removal of border checks within EU countries.

They are an insular people (right down to communal level), but I would not describe them as racist. There is a large Gastarbeiter (guest worker) contingency in the Swiss workforce (I was one myself, as were many others in the hotel workforce) and they appreciate the importance of controlled immigration. At the same time, they value their freedom, democracy, and are happy to fly in the face of ‘multiculturalism’.

To this day, the Swiss still keep an eye on their neighbour to the North and possess an almost paranoid view of the likelihood of invasion. There is nuclear bunker space for every Swiss citizen and any new buildings must have bunker provision. They retain their view on a popular army, made up from all male citizens between a certain age range. Roads are built to allow for fighter jet landings, bridges are rigged with explosives, so that they may be destroyed if need be, innocent mountain huts contain control centres, and there are all manner of secret places from which guerilla warfare can be conducted. Hitler seriously considered and drew up plans for the invasion and occupation of Switzerland in World War 2, but decided against it, supposedly because he knew he could not take and keep the whole country, even if marching into the northern industrial heartland would have been relatively easy.

If you live in Switzerland, you do it their way or you are welcome to leave. Yet the Swiss people’s decision to forbid the building of minarets will be decried by many as racist. The multiculturalists and certain political classes are already acting like the bad losers they are and will supposedly appeal to the Swiss Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights over the decision.

That is just disgraceful. Such people do not have a moral monopoly. I am sure that the Swiss people have witnessed how successfully (or otherwise) multiculturalism (with particular reference to Islam) is taking place within neighbouring countries and have decided to send a clear signal that they do not wish to go down that line.

Regardless of anyone’s views on the issue of minarets, at least the Swiss citizens have had the opportunity to decide on this issue, and it is simply arrogance in the extreme to attempt to overturn the decision on the assumption that the people have made the ‘wrong’ decision.

The EU and most national governments could learn a great deal about real democracy and localisation of politics from Switzerland. After all, they do quite well for a land-locked country of four distinct languages, with no natural resources of any significance and a population of under 8 million. Maybe it’s because they have a system of perpetual coalition and direct democracy, so the politicians can get on running the country instead of spending their time fighting each other.