Take it from the Swiss: the Brexit referendum wasn't legitimate

With 400 national binding referendums over the last 50 years the Swiss have learned, sometimes the hard way, what works and what does not

November 09, 2017
article header image

So far, the push for a second referendum has not made much progress. The reason is simple: any majority in favour of a second vote needs to include a good number of Leave voters, and Remainers have not yet found the arguments to convince them. Aside from their dislike of the outcome, one even wonders whether Remainers themselves are clear on why a second vote should be held.

Which is a shame, because the case for a second vote is actually very strong. To make that case, one need only look to Switzerland’s political tradition. With more experience of referendums than all other countries combined—400 national binding referendums over the last 50 years—the Swiss have learned, sometimes the hard way, what works and what does not.

The first lesson is that voters are perfectly capable of making difficult trade-offs. In the recent years, the Swiss have voted to increase their taxes, to rob themselves of an extra week of paid holiday and against a mandatory minimum wage. They are experienced referendum voters—four times a year, every year—and take their votes very seriously; they know a real policy choice is at stake.

There is thus nothing wrong with referendums as such, and they can be quite useful: a “good” referendum strengthens the democratic legitimacy of a contentious policy option and constrains the government possibilities to deviate from the people’s will.

It can go wrong though. In 2014, the Swiss voted to limit EU-migration to Switzerland, threatening the trade agreements with the EU, which are vital for the Swiss economy and impose the free movement of workers. The debates and polls showed that voters did not understand the lopsided power balance between the EU and Switzerland, and thought limiting EU-migration was an option devoid of consequences.

Such haziness defeats the purpose of a referendum: the winning option offers little guidance as to what exactly the "will of the people" is and how to move forward. This is worse than pointless. The government may have to ignore the vote for the greater good, undermining democracy—which is what the Swiss ended up doing. Worse, the government could exploit the vagueness and use the referendum as a democratic fig leaf to legitimize and push through its favourite (and possibly very unrepresentative) reading of the results.

This is probably beginning to sound familiar, but it gets worse. Vagueness also corrupts the electoral process itself. The second lesson of 170 years of Swiss referendums is that you absolutely need to pit two realistic options against each other—each with its own costs and drawbacks, which voters must understand.

An alternative unmoored from reality can be all things to all people, giving its proponents the opportunity to build a winning coalition of "incompatible voters" and the flexibility to evade any serious discussion of its real-world downsides.

Perhaps an example could be of help to illustrate this. Imagine 40 per cent of the population is vegetarian, 30 per cent loves pork but abhors beef, and the remaining 30 per cent love beef but can’t eat pork. A vote on the question “who wants to eat meat tonight?” should yield an easy 60 per cent majority, although both the pork and the beef options are rejected by 70 per cent of the population.

The reason is simple: “meat” is not actually a real option. “Meat” means something different to different voters, and the 60 per cent majority in favor of “meat” is the sum of mutually incompatible beef and pork eaters. Furthermore, any skilled politician can evade criticism of the “meat” option by switching from one definition to the other as convenient. The hazier the option, the more the result will skew in its favor.

So it’s no wonder Brexit won. David Cameron drew up a textbook example of a referendum done wrong: asking an ill-informed electorate to choose between a costly and constraining EU marriage full of unsavoury compromises and a fantasized Brexit-with-benefits. The utter vagueness of the Leave option allowed their campaign to cast the widest net of all, encouraging each voter to keep their most favourable version of Brexit in mind, however far that may be from the Leave politicians’ intentions.

This was an act of political genius. It allowed hard and soft Brexiteers, free-market fundamentalists and protectionists, open-door internationalist and xenophobes to all joyously add their votes together and stick it to the EU.

It was also deeply disingenuous.  Most will not get the Brexit they thought they voted for. How many would not have voted Leave if they had only known how different the options pursued by Theresa May would be from their own preferences?

The fundamental problem with the Brexit referendum is hence not its outcome, but its setup. The result does not represent the will of the people—it cannot, for “Brexit” as such is ill defined—and Leave voters should know that this vagueness predestined their vote to be misused by the Leave camp. Instead of constraining the government’s hand, the Leave victory has given it democratic air cover to redraw Britain’s entire future by decree.

This year, the Swiss government drew the correct and courageous conclusion that their own indirect election afforded them enough democratic legitimacy to overturn the results of the poorly thought out 2014 EU immigration referendum.

It is unlikely the British parliament or government will do the same. This leaves but only one option to restore the democratic process: a second (or rather: an actual!) referendum on Brexit. Not as an elitist "do-over", as Brexiteers would certainly have it, but as a democratic necessity, in particular for the sake of the initial Leave voters.