We could learn a thing or two from Swiss democracy

14 February 2022

11:55 PM

14 February 2022

11:55 PM

There was another referendum in Switzerland over the weekend. This one was about protecting the young from the evils of tobacco by banning advertising anywhere children might see it. This strikes me as a good deal more liberal than the measure from New Zealand’s mildly fascistic Jacinda Ardern, who insists that young people must never smoke at all, ever, or indeed the situation here where none of us is allowed actually to see a cigarette packet in case it gives us ideas.

But it’s not just cigarette advertisements that the Swiss were voting on. There are other referendums on animal (and human) experiments in research as well as a couple of lesser measures to do with stamp duty and the media. The approach seems to be that if you’re turning out to vote on tobacco, you might as well turn your attention to laboratory rats while you’re at it.

This is not by any means unusual. Last year there were four lots of referendums, in March, June, September and November on some quite important issues as well as oddball ones. The Swiss voted on same-sex marriage (for) and a ban on face coverings in public places — known as the burka ban — (for) as well as against the government’s own Covid-19 legislation. There were also moves to make Switzerland a cleaner, greener place by banning artificial pesticides and promoting healthy food and clean water, both of which were rejected by a sceptical public.

This is, by a mile, the busiest democracy in the world and it has to be the bolshiest electorate anywhere. The heirs of William Tell seem unimpressed by the federal government and their equivalent of the pressure group Liberty telling them that it would present a very bad impression if, say, Switzerland banned minarets; the voters shrugged, and went ahead and banned them anyway. It must be a heady place to be a journalist or a campaigner.

There is a modest bar to prevent nutters getting their obsessions on the ballot (though consider who might have been supporting that Covid-19 vote) which is that any measure to effect change must be supported by 100,000 authorised signatures; in the case of changes to an existing law, 50,000 signatures. But in cases involving constitutional change, referendums are mandatory. Oh, and individual cantons get to vote on local stuff: in 2015, residents of Gipf-Oberfrick voted to block Swiss naturalisation for a local vegan who campaigned against traditional Swiss cowbells.

Now this is a democracy. There can be very little excuse for the Swiss to feel excluded from decision making; it must be quite exhilarating trotting down to the polls every few months to see off a measure you don’t like. As it happens, I don’t approve of some measures they voted through — same-sex marriage and suicide clinics for instance — but at least they get the chance to decide.

Compare and contrast with that travesty of democracy that is citizens’ assemblies, beloved of the Irish government and very much supported by the Scottish government. This brings together say, 100 people by random selection, to discuss matters presented to them under the guidance of a chair and to listen to presentations from various experts.

It is pretty well the perfect format for a liberal cabal to ensure that the outcome delivered is the outcome required. If you are in charge of selecting the chair of the process, your job is halfway done — the chair gets to set the tone of the discussion and frame the terms of reference. And then if you have the chance to set the subjects for discussion, select the experts to inform the gathering and arrange the order in which they appear, you’re pretty well there.

The example of pretty well egregious manipulation of the assembly format was, as far as I was concerned, found in the citizens’ assembly that determined the questions that were put to the Irish electorate in the abortion referendum. The way the discussions were framed, the presuppositions of the experts, the nature of the topics, all ensured that the outcome was unlikely to be a resounding affirmation of the rights of the foetus. So it proved.

The question in the abortion referendum was framed so those in favour of retaining the constitutional amendment to protect the foetus were obliged to vote ‘no’ — the upbeat ‘yes’ option went to the pro-repeal lot. And the legislation that the Irish government brought in in the wake of the yes vote was framed exactly as those who set the agenda for the citizens’ assembly wanted: with the assumption that the foetus has no rights, and with abortion to be carried out at will in the first trimester, with some restrictions up to 27 weeks. The citizens’ assembly deliberations weren’t based on any assumption of the right to life of the foetus but on how abortion should be introduced. (A pro-lifer I know who was brought in towards the end of the deliberations found that the assumptions of the assembly were by then established.)

The dreary citizens’ assembly process is still ongoing; if you want to see how the thing works now, look up the latest report from the Irish citizen’s assembly on gender equality which is both so resoundingly dull and so complacent in its assumptions as to defy honest scrutiny, which is probably the idea. As for the Scots, their opening citizens’ assembly was no less catatonically platitudinous; among its conclusions was the following:

The Scotland we want to see should lead with integrity, honesty, humility and transparency, in a self-sufficient and innovative way, and actively include the people of Scotland in decision making.’

You know what? If you want active inclusion in decision making, you know where to go: Switzerland. Except there, you can’t guarantee the outcomes.

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