Scotland Can Learn From Switzerland in Ensuring ‘people Are Sovereign’


I LEFT Scotland in my 20s and have lived in Switzerland for almost 50 years, so I’m very familiar with the Swiss system of direct democracy. The Scottish constitution recognises the sovereignty of the Scottish people, but after over 300 years in this unequal Union, the Swiss model may help Scots envision what a modern version of popular sovereignty could look like in a new Scottish state.

The Swiss Constitution

The foundation of Swiss popular sovereignty is the 1999 federal constitution. ALL politicians refer to the people as the sovereign, because they are. They can contest virtually any legislation parliament proposes (by referendum) and can also propose legislation on practically any topic (by an initiative). They can even demand a new constitution.

The people have supreme power at all times, not just at the moment of a change of legislature.

The 26 cantons also have their own constitutions where the people, not the politicians, are in control. Perhaps this is a reason Switzerland comes near the top in global wellbeing and economic success.

Popular Sovereignty in Action

Citizens may call a federal referendum to challenge a law by gathering 50,000 signatures within 100 days. If they succeed, a simple majority of voters decides whether to accept or reject the law.

Similarly, the federal popular initiative allows citizens to put a constitutional amendment to a national vote if 100,000 voters sign the proposed amendment within 18 months. The Federal Council and Assembly can counter-propose. A majority of voters at the federal and cantonal levels, a double majority, then decide whether to accept or reject the proposals. The right of referendum also exists at cantonal and local levels, where the people have devolved powers not assigned to the federal government.

The cantons are also sovereign and exercise all rights not vested by the constitution in the federal government. So, the confederation can’t trample over “devolution” like Westminster does with Scotland!

Each canton has its own constitution, parliament, government, police and courts, and a high degree of autonomy. Independence would enable Scotland to re-empower that middle level of government between national and local – probably built around today’s councils, the evolution from yesterday’s Convention of Royal Burghs.

Double Majority protects minorities

Constitutional amendments must be accepted by a double majority of the national popular and cantonal votes. This protects the French, Italian and Romansh-speaking minorities against the 70% German-speaking majority. Depending on a future independent Scotland’s constitution, such a mechanism could protect the interests of the Highlands and Islands and Orkney and Shetland. In the current UK context, a double majority would have blocked the Brexit blunder, since both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.

Direct link between taxation and political representation

Swiss citizens are subject to three jurisdictions: the municipality, canton and federal levels, where representatives are elected by the people. Each jurisdiction has full direct taxation and spending powers and borrowing is permitted. If the people don’t like how individual politicians have managed their remit, then they can sack them at the next election.

Compare that to the British system of parliamentary representation and one can see there is a huge difference between the proximity of the British voter and his MP compared with his Swiss counterpart.

Slightly more than half of Switzerland’s tax revenues are generated closer to the people, at the cantonal and communal level, ensuring accountability.

Swiss politics are consensual, not conflictual

In Switzerland, the political makeup of the Federal Government is decided by proportional voting. The seven Government members are elected by the Parliament after each four-year election and the presidency rotates annually between the seven members, leaving no room for prima donna Prime or First Ministers like Westminster or Holyrood!

This system “condemns” the parties to work together and leads to – as has been the case since 1959 – a tacit coalition government. The rotating presidency also assures cross-cultural and cross-political representation at the highest level. This leads to far less parliamentary confrontation – such as during Holyrood First Minister’s Questions.

Direct Democracy at work

Over the last ten years an annual average of five referendums and five initiatives have been held, the popular “win rate” being 20%. There’s no question such votes cost time and money, but when people are interviewed on Swiss TV, or when there are publicly disseminated current affairs debates either nationally or locally, it’s impressive to see how well informed they are. The democracy dividend is definitely worth the effort.

Source : TheNational