Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Director's Cut

If you dye a donkey's fur, put a saddle on it and enter it in the 3.30 at Chepstow does it become a horse?  What about if you tell all your friends that from now on you insist on being referred to as Farrokh Bulsara? Does that make you the lead singer of Queen?  Maybe you develop a stiff gait and a monotonic speaking voice.  Are you now a robot? How about if you have an established system of representative democracy and you run a referendum?  Does that make it direct democracy?  If you answered yes to any of these questions I am going to ban you from this blog until you receive professional help.

Yellow toreador jacket. Tick.  White trousers with red piping. Tick. Enormous moustache. Tick.  Wow, you are Freddie Mercury.
I live in a country that has a system of direct democracy.  A few times a year Swiss nationals get to vote on a wide range of initiatives.  If you feel strongly about something and can pose it as a question with a binary answer you can start up a petition.  With enough signatures the government are forced to add it to the queue, meaning that a date is set for your question to be put to the people.  If you're successful and your petition achieves a "yes" from more than 50% of the votes cast then the government have a fixed period to implement the initiative.  The government can't just do what they want, though.  They need to put their solution to Parliament, where elected representatives decide if they agree or disagree with the details of the implementation.   Any alarm bells ringing yet?  Madame, those bells are in your own head.  See a doctor immediately.

Hands up if you've heard of the Masseinwanderungsiniatitive.  Ok, don't all rush at once.   I know it sounds boring but it has a scary parallel with the whole Brexit mess so I think it's worth describing.  It also provides a demonstration of direct democracy in action with all its messy imperfections. Truth be told, it is a sad and tawdry tale so hankies at the ready. 

I've posted the text of the Masseinwanderungsinitiative below so you can see it in all its glory.  At first glance, it looks like someone put a lot of thought into it. There are several mentions of the Swiss constitution followed by carefully worded amendments to be considered by the electorate.  So far, all very Swiss.  What you probably don't realise is that it was actually proposed by a bunch of crack-pot loons for whom detail and consequence are just distant echoes from a parallel universe.

Die Bundesverfassung wird wie folgt geändert:
Art. 121 Sachüberschrift (neu)
Gesetzgebung im Ausländer- und Asylbereich
Art. 121a (neu) Steuerung der Zuwanderung
1 Die Schweiz steuert die Zuwanderung von Ausländerinnen und Ausländern eigenständig.
2 Die Zahl der Bewilligungen für den Aufenthalt von Ausländerinnen und Ausländern in der Schweiz wird durch jährliche Höchstzahlen und Kontingente begrenzt. Die Höchstzahlen gelten für sämtliche Bewilligungen des Ausländerrechts unter Einbezug des Asylwesens. Der Anspruch auf dauerhaften Aufenthalt, auf Familiennachzug und auf Sozialleistungen kann beschränkt werden.
3 Die jährlichen Höchstzahlen und Kontingente für erwerbstätige Ausländerinnen und Ausländer sind auf die gesamtwirtschaftlichen Interessen der Schweiz unter Berücksichtigung eines Vorranges für Schweizerinnen und Schweizer auszurichten; die Grenzgängerinnen und Grenzgänger sind einzubeziehen. Massgebende Kriterien für die Erteilung von Aufenthaltsbewilligungen sind insbesondere das Gesuch eines Arbeitgebers, die Integrationsfähigkeit und eine ausreichende, eigenständige Existenzgrundlage.
4 Es dürfen keine völkerrechtlichen Verträge abgeschlossen werden, die gegen diesen Artikel verstossen.
5 Das Gesetz regelt die Einzelheiten.
Die Übergangsbestimmungen der Bundesverfassung werden wie folgt geändert:
Art. 197 Ziff. 9 (neu)
9. Übergangsbestimmung zu Art. 121a (Steuerung der Zuwanderung)
1 Völkerrechtliche Verträge, die Artikel 121a widersprechen, sind innerhalb von drei Jahren nach dessen Annahme durch Volk und Stände neu zu verhandeln und anzupassen.
2 Ist die Ausführungsgesetzgebung zu Artikel 121a drei Jahre nach dessen Annahme durch Volk und Stände noch nicht in Kraft getreten, so erlässt der Bundesrat auf diesen Zeitpunkt hin die Ausführungsbestimmungen vorübergehend auf dem Verordnungsweg.

Switzerland has it's very own version of UKIP.  In fact, I would put it the other way round and say that UKIP is the UK's version of the SVP.  Anyway, the SVP backed a referendum question that aimed to place a cap on inwards migration.  This involved an alteration to the the Swiss constitution.  Annoyingly, I could only find the text of the referendum question in German so apologies to French speakers if you feel a bit left outPlease don't feel left out because it is actually quite dull.  It basically says that the constitution should be amended so that quotas are introduced for all inwards migration.  The initiative passed with 50.3% of the vote, leaving the government a difficult task.  The problem they face is that placing a cap on EU migration would endanger every single bi-lateral treaty that Switzerland has signed with the EU.  That amounts to about 120 intertwined treaties that have accumulated over a period of over 20 years.  None of this was mentioned in the initiative.  I'd say this is a problem without solution.  What's the word for that again?  Tip of my tongue...

What have the government done?  Well, first of all they decided they didn't want to endanger any of the treaties.  Maybe they decided that for themselves or maybe they took the view that nobody asked them to place national economic prosperity in jeopardy or maybe they were just unnerved by all the yelling and gnashing of teeth from Swiss industry.   I don't know the operation of their mind, I'm afraid.  In the end they came up with a fudge that encourages Swiss businesses to hire candidates already resident in Switzerland.  The EU made some positive noises about this and the Swiss Parliament voted in favour of it.  There's about 3 months remaining to finally implement the solution, which I guess will involve some kind of formal acceptance by the EU and the operation of a massive rubber stamp.  They should have a big party and get drunk on horrid Swiss whisky at the end of all this because I bet it has been a major headache for all involved.

What about that fudge?  It doesn't actually impose a quota on migration, does it?  To be perfectly honest, it makes bugger all difference.  That's probably why the EU made all those positive noises. It still leaves a question about democracy, doesn't it?  Has democracy been served here?  On the one hand, an elected government has proposed a solution and an elected parliament has ratified it. That sounds good.  On the other hand, the referendum result hasn't really been implemented as expected. Hmm, that sounds bad.  The good news is that Switzerland is an ordered society.  Bloody heck, it is nothing if it is not an ordered society. There's a system at work here with formal processes governed by a written constitution.  The system has been followed.  Nobody can argue about that.  Well, obviously, the SVP are spitting with rage but if they want to change the situation they are going to have to start doing a lot better in the national elections.  That's the system and if you don't like it I suggest you booger off and live somewhere else.  I believe I have just quoted official SVP policy.

What has all this to do with the UK?  Well, I just outlined the system of direct democracy as it works here in foggy Switzerland.  It is a formal system.  It is written down in the constitution.  In this system decision-making is driven by the people but the implementation details are left to the government, which works under parliamentary scrutiny.  When someone proposes a initiative without obvious solution the system works to encourage compromise and political consensus. Like all systems it is imperfect but it is an established system that is used many times each year with some success.  Let's compare that with the UK and its sorry attempt at an in/out EU referendum. Have they followed an established system?  Is there a firm set of constitutional procedures that can be followed to arrive at a legally approved outcome? Are we moving steadily towards compromise and consensus?  No, of course not. Why not?  Well, the UK is a representative democracy ill-equipped to deal with ad hoc extensions.

I used to vote in UK elections.  It's been a while but I think I remember how it works.  First, political parties publish a manifesto.  This document outlines key pledges that will be enacted if they win the election.  We're a naturally suspicious people so we also expect to see a plan for how they intend to make their dreams come true.  Electoral campaigns are as much about the pledges as the ability to realise them.  In the end, we all get to cast a vote for a representative of a political party.  I might decide to vote for a candidate because they have good hair.  The system certainly gives me that freedom.  Personally, I think great hair is important but it's not enough on its own.  It's good to know, therefore, that I can judge not only manifesto pledges but also whether I believe their plans are credible.  Maybe I'm really into yogic flying and agree with all the pledges of the Natural Law party but don't believe they have the necessary leadership skills for a prolonged levitation experience.  This is how it works. I'm just saying.

I agreed with everything they stood (levitated) for but they were too organisationally weak to get my vote.
Every single political party apart from UKIP stood in the 2015 General Election with a manifesto pledge to remain in the EU.   The public can't force Labour or Conservative to honour their pledges but history tells us that ignoring manifesto pledges or doing a bad job implementing them will be accounted for at the next General Election.  Douglas Carswell, the solitary UKIP MP, is actually the only MP in Parliament with a mandate to vote to leave the EU.  He is also the only MP with a mandate to vote to leave the EEA.   UKIP have made their position 100% clear where they stand on Europe and his constituents know that.   The rest of Westminster is not in this position because they pledged to remain in the EU and the single market and the customs union.  I expect them to honour  their manifesto.  Don't you?  Oh, but what about the EU referendum?  How does that fit in?  Nobody actually knows.  Well done, everyone.

Where do we stand?  Remain supporters think there should be a second referendum, while Leave supporters think it should be automatically enacted without delay or prevarication. They're all wrong, I'm afraid.  Remember, the UK doesn't have a system of direct democracy.  Running another referendum would just compound the madness.  We simply can't expect MPs elected on a pro-EU manifesto to turn around and vote to leave the EU. I'm sorry but that's not how representative democracy works.  If we start doing that it will make General Elections a complete waste of time.  Yes, I know they're mostly a waste of time but they're not a complete waste of time.  Are they?

What should happen?  Parliament created this mess so it has to come up with a plan to fix it.  Shoving it under the carpet like a February credit card bill is not going to end well.  The only path for Parliament is to proceed as though it does have a system of direct democracy on this single issue. That means Parliament gets to scrutinise the implementation of the referendum result because that is what actually happens in direct democracies.   How should Parliament arrive at a conclusion?  Well, MPs need to act in accordance with their election pledges because that is what actually happens in direct democracies.  Does that mean staying in the EU?  I would argue that it does but there's a readily available fudge.  For most people EU membership is a technical point.  What most pro-EU MPs really care about is membership of the EEA and the European Customs Union.  After all, these are the bodies that really make a difference to political hot potatoes like Nissan Sunderland.  The EU happens to be the Venn intersection of these two institutions but nothing says that you can't be members of both and remain outside the EUIf Parliament voted on this solution I believe that the referendum would be honoured to the letter and election manifesto pledges would be honoured in substance.  Obviously, this is bat-shit crazy but I would argue that everything about this is bat-shit crazy.  The only hope at this point is to minimise brainwrong. 

If you want to ban Europe stand for Parliament.  Be my guest.
If you're a hard-core Leaver and you're desperate to exit the EEA and the European Customs Union and the EU and the Erasmus scheme and you want to ban "The Final Countdown" by Euro-pomp hair-rockers Europe then I recommend you form a political party and make it a key manifesto pledge. Plan it out like everyone else and put it to the electorate for scrutiny.  I don't hold out much chance of success, though.  UKIP already tried that and managed to win just one lonely seat at Westminster.  Welcome to representative democracy.

Over and out,


PS This is all a bit worrying for Scottish independence. The UK has proven itself unable to handle referendum results that require positive action.  What can be done?  What alternative is there that works with the system of representative democracy that we currently have?

PPS Here in Zurich, SVP (Swiss People's Party) is pronounced ess fow (as in wow) pay.  Just like UKIP, they are an unbelievable rabble of comedy losers.  

PPPS Intractable!  I knew I'd get there in the end.



  1. It seems to me that hard Brexit will be a disaster, cutting the UK off from the world that we have traded with for 40+ years; cutting our universities from funding; stopping our kids travelling to be educated; and costing us more for everything.

    Soft Brexit will solve the problems of trade, but like Norway and Switzerland we'll pay dear for it. (I understand that Norway pays the EU more per head than we do.) It will mean that we pay, we have to accept all their regulations, we have to accept all the free movement, even if we fudge it like Switzerland does, it won't make any difference. And we won't get money for farming, social or structural funds, or have any say in the rules that we have to follow.

    Norway doesn't have nearly as much in the way of farming as the UK does, and it's so rich it doesn't mind not getting structural funds and wouldn't qualify for any social funding.

    But certainly the poorer parts of the Uk benefit form that sort of money coming in.

    So we are miles worse off, and still have all the regulation. Lose lose.

    And there will be race riots in parts of the country when the racists realise that out hasn't meant getting rid of the Daily Mail's hordes.

  2. A soft Brexit is the least worst outcome now.

    The most surprising thing about this is that the UK can't deal with plebiscites at all. Why do we keep having them? They're more frequent now than they've eve been. Despite that, there is no legislation to deal with them. Even an agree convention would be nice.

    Fingers crossed for no race riots. That march on the Supreme Court is looking scarier by the minute.


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