There’s a palpable sense of frustration and anger in the electorates of many Western democracies that has been brewing for some time, and nowhere more so than the U.K. Decades of broken manifesto pledges, votes ignored, targets unmet, policies introduced without consultation and public opinion flagrantly disregarded leave the impression that we are living in a uni-party world that is now a democracy in name only. Once elected, our entitled elites on both sides of the aisle forge on with activist policies and agenda that are often at complete odds with those of the people they supposedly represent and to whom they forget that they owe their very positions. Institutions that should stand as a balance against activist ideologies have been steadily captured by the same intellectual conformity that ensures the tyranny of the faceless ‘blob’. With no recourse to a safety-valve of interim voting (between general elections) it is unsurprising that we are seeing and hearing a disempowered electorate prepared to take matters into their own hands via civil disobedience and potential acts of violence. This never ends well and before discontent turns to action, we should start to be forward thinking and propose solutions to the limitations of our representative democratic model.
Perhaps it has been ever thus? There is good reason to think so. However, a perfect storm of societal shifts, global alignment of intellectual elites, groupthink and technological changes mean that we find ourselves in unchartered territory where the systems that we have relied on to date are no longer entirely fit for purpose. The historical dividing line between Right and Left has been rendered almost meaningless, rather being replaced by new axes of authoritarian versus non-authoritarian and woke versus anti-woke. Presiding over the landscape are institutions that find themselves in a legitimacy crisis, which has spread stealthily from academia to society at large. Institutions, including the police force, judicial system, regulatory bodies and legacy media think and act as one. More alarmingly, as recent events have shown, these institutions are now being used to vilify, silence and destroy anyone whose message contradicts the official narrative.
Unable to generate societal consensus, governments have encouraged an almost permanent state of ‘poly crisis’ to justify increased controls and surveillance and bypass the democratic process – a dynamic explained in Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy, where governments create ‘external enemies’ to divert the public away from real concerns closer to home. We can look back at the events of the past 20 years and see that the world has been mired in a state of almost permanent crisis of one form or another. The constant evoking and manufacturing of crises has become, as Thomas Fazi puts it, a “method of government” in which “every natural disaster, every economic crisis, every military conflict and every terrorist attack is systematically exploited by governments to radicalise and accelerate the transformation of economies, social systems and state apparatuses”. These perma-crises allow governments to deviate from the norms of public debate and parliamentary politics. Extraordinary restrictions of our freedoms to speak, to associate and to dissent become justified on the basis that the immediate threat overrides medium to long term planning. The idea of permanent crisis precludes any idea of progress – situations need to be managed but never solved. If Covid was the awakening for many people of how these systems work, the climate crisis is the most recent and pressing example of how any means are justified in order to ‘save the planet’. The solution must always be at a global level, obviating any need for local input and surrendering even more powers to supra-national organisations such as the WEF, EU, WHO and UN.
It is becoming abundantly clear that truth is no longer the lodestar around which many of our once independent institutions are ordered. The weight of evidence that something is not right and has been rotten for a long time has reached the point that many people can no longer pretend not to see it. A dogmatic secular religion with its own shibboleths of ESG, DEI etc. has grown up, with a new priesthood of politicians and technocrats who enact their X under the conviction that they, and they only, are best placed to decide how we should live ‘for the greater good’. As C.S. Lewis so astutely observed:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
We know that this moment in time is critical. There are technologies that are primed to impose unprecedented changes upon our societies, from surveillance cameras that can look through walls, facial recognition, permits for 415,000 low level satellites that will ensure 24/7 surveillance, Central Bank Digital Currencies, digital ID’s, Net Zero, the list goes on. All brought in without discussion and without consultation and, once implemented, almost impossible to reverse. These ideas seemed to be the thing of dystopian novels, but the evocation of ’emergency’, as seen during the reaction to Covid, shows how democratic constitutions can be easily bypassed and frightening precedents set. Our democratic societies are at serious risk of being replaced by global totalitarianism run by technocratic elites, based on propaganda that they control. Matthias Desmet call this seemingly irresistible force “turnkey totalitarianism”. It will be almost impossible to dissent to once in place.
It is clear that the U.K.’s system of representative democracy on its own is no longer fit for purpose in a world where technology and modern communications give us a front row seat for everything that is going on in the world, but with only a once in five-year window in which to express our views. Feeling politically homeless, sandwiched between two political parties that are no better than ‘two cheeks of the same arse’, is the place where increasing numbers find themselves. So what to do to preserve the freedoms that we desperately want to keep?
Now is the time for bold and visionary leaders and a bold party to propose a much-needed change to a not-fit-for-purpose system. With a General Election a year away and cynicism, fatigue and scepticism at an all-time high, the idea of direct democracy is being mooted by journalists such as Allister Heath in the Telegraph and successful business people like Hugh Osmond. They look across at the success of Switzerland, which is one of the wealthiest, happiest and healthiest countries in the world and wonder whether a Government that is more regularly made accountable to its people and is thereby more transparent might not be a template for a modern Britain. There is good precedent as the U.K. and its constituent countries have held 13 referenda since 1973. A democracy that is more direct, decentralised and devolved, where the more responsibility voters are given, the more responsibly they behave. The exact model that the U.K. should adopt will obviously have nuances best adapted to the size and structure of our parliamentary system. But let us take a look at the basics of the model as it exists in Switzerland at the moment to see where this ‘safety valve’ of public opinion could provide part of a solution to our political predicament.
“No country on earth is more democratic than Switzerland”, says David Altman, Uruguayan political scientist and direct democracy expert. “Here, each citizen can change each aspect of life. Of course not acting alone, but only if they belong to a group.” Switzerland successfully combines and integrates representative and direct democracy, which is no small feat. While it may be tempting to see the Swiss example as a tried and tested solution, there are naturally caveats, not least the requisite for a highly informed and participatory electorate, limiting the abuse of well-funded groups to advance their own agendas, and balancing individual sovereignty against the ‘tyranny of the majority’.
There are three main types of referendum and each has its place in a healthy direct democracy. They are: popular initiative, optional referendum and mandatory referendum.
Popular referendum initiatives are citizens’ proposals that currently in Switzerland require 100,000 signatures collected within a period of 18 months. These can be held up to four times a year. Any Swiss citizen who is eligible to vote can sign a popular initiative and a group of at least seven citizens (the initiative committee) can launch their own popular initiative.
The Federal Council and Parliament will each give a non-binding recommendation on whether the proposal should be accepted or rejected. For the proposal to be accepted a ‘double’ majority (that is, both a popular majority and a majority of states (cantons) in favour) is needed. If it is accepted, new legislation or an amendment to existing legislation is normally required to implement the referendum result.
Optional or ‘facultative’ referendums are for the purpose of rejecting (or confirming) a newly passed law. They require 50,000 valid signatures, collected within 100 days of the official publication of the new law or international agreement. A popular majority voting yes or no determines the fate of the new law. The right to request an optional referendum is an important element in Swiss direct democracy, not only for when it is used, but because for all new laws the prospect of a popular vote focuses the minds of the politicians and civil servants drafting the law as they know that there will be a guaranteed referendum if they don’t take the views prevalent within the population proactively into consideration.
Mandatory referendums are stipulated in law for certain major decisions, such as to revise the constitution, join an international organisation or introduce emergency federal legislation for over a year.
In addition, several Swiss cantons give citizens the right to recall their elected officials before the end of their term of office, a further safety valve and check on their use of power.
While no system is perfect, it is imperative if we are to maintain the benefits and privileges of our liberal democracies that we explore ways to reform the system to counterbalance major decisions where our elected representatives have deviated from the views and priorities of the citizenry. More regular referenda should be used to enhance national decision making, keep public policy more closely in line with the views and interests of the public and ensure the accountability of our elected representatives. No other form of democracy ensures a greater degree of openness and transparency between the people and their Government. Yet here comes the rub, as David Altman explained: “A direct democracy decision-making process ultimately results in an additional and finer distribution of power. Those who already have great decision-making powers in a political system are usually opposed to the introduction of a direct democracy process.”
Neil Oliver is a writer and broadcaster. Find him on X (Twitter). Join the next Space on X/Twitter on Monday October 30th at 6pm (U.K. time).
Image: The Landsgemeinde or cantonal assembly of the Swiss canton of Glarus, a public gathering of citizens which holds the highest political authority in the state.