The Second Brexit Referendum through a Swiss Lens

Using a Comparative Analysis to Clarify the Situation

Brexit has been a thorn in the side of UK politics for more than three years now. It has spanned two elected Governments and two Prime Ministers from the same party and, still, there is no clear end in sight. To make matters even more complicated, there are now calls for a second referendum, a so-called People’s Vote on the final deal of Brexit.

The movement for the People’s Vote culminated in a march in which close to 700,000 people took to the streets, with several MPs and the Mayor of London calling for a final say on whether or not they should accept the Brexit deal, as put forward by the Government, or back out of the affair altogether and remain in the EU.

There has been serious and warranted opposition to the latter idea. Some of the opposition has pointed to a second vote being nothing but political opportunism in an attempt to overturn a democratic vote. This is a strange stance to take given that referendums are seen as a form of direct democracy, and therefore, the ultimate form of democratic participation. Additionally, the promise of an EU referendum itself was an opportunistic move promised to the people by then-Prime Minister David Cameron with the hope that it would secure his position in the Government. It did and, while he was in power, he delivered the promised referendum and campaigned for a Remain vote. Upon losing, he abandoned his post and turned his back on the mess he created.

Others have pointed out that this constant back and forth puts the legitimacy of the Government as a whole in peril. The UK runs its affairs through a bicameral representative Parliament; a constant back and forth between Parliament and the people can erode this perceived legitimacy. This may open the way to fringe politicians down the line as trust in the Government goes wayward. There is also the fact that both Houses of Parliament will get a vote on the final Brexit deal. So what really is the point of taking it back to a referendum?

Here the Government's position is that the Parliamentary vote will not mimic what is being called for in the People’s Vote. That is, Parliament will not get to vote between what kind of deal the Government is proposing versus remaining in the EU. Rather, Parliament will be voting on the Brexit deal itself, ruling out the possibility of remaining in the EU. Most in Parliament argue that this is the best way to preserve the peace while also staying true to the spirit of the original referendum.

With all of these competing interests around Brexit, it has become hard to make heads from tails. What is the best way to proceed now that, two years after the initial referendum, so much more is known about the intricacies of leaving the EU? And who should really get a final say on what happens?

A Model of Direct Democracy

One way of getting a clearer view of what the best way forward may be is to look at how other countries utilize referendums and direct democracy. Switzerland sticks out here because it operates almost entirely on the basis of direct democracy.

Switzerland utilizes direct democracy in three different ways: 1) Mandatory referendums, in which proposed Parliamentary changes to laws that require an adjustment to the Constitution are automatically put to a referendum and require a “double-majority’”— a simple popular majority and a majority of Switzerland's 26 Cantons voting in favour of the change; 2) Optional referendums, which are democratic challenges to laws proposed by Parliament and only require a popular majority; 3) Popular initiatives, which are laws suggested by and submitted to Parliament through a popular petition. Here, the government has the option to amend a submitted law before it goes out to a referendum, meaning that the referendum includes three options and not two.

Mapping the Brexit referendum onto these three modes is difficult yet can still shed light on some of the biggest issues.

Constitutional Implications

In theory, the referendum is best mapped onto the first option since it originated from the government, but paradoxically was not given a specific form. In other words, it was more of a notion (leaving the EU) than a law or a specific proposition since one can, for example, leave the EU but remain a member of the European Economic Area. The lack of details within the original proposition is one of the main reasons why the Brexit process has become such a mess.

If we were to map the Brexit referendum onto the first mode of Swiss direct democracy, then Brexit should, theoretically, get a “double majority.” Out of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, only England and Wales voted to leave, meaning a “double-majority” was not achieved. Under those circumstances, the referendum should not have passed in the first place even though it achieved a popular majority.

This stark comparison between the different countries found within the UK is another major reason for tension between Remain and Leave voters, as the decision to leave is seen as being forced on two territories. So great is this tension that Scotland has threatened to hold another independence referendum. This is exacerbated by the fact that territories other than England do not hold the sufficient number of seats in the UK Parliament that would give them enough leverage to represent their true wishes or push back through Parliamentary methods.

A People’s Initiative

Brexit can also be mapped onto the third Swiss mode, the “popular initiative.” The referendum was put forward in a simple, ill-defined way because David Cameron was acquiescing to public pressure. The popular initiative approach would mean the Government would have the right to propose an alternative to the proposed law, a “pure” or what has come to be known as a Hard Brexit. In the Swiss model, it would be after a proposition had been submitted to Parliament that it would go out to a Referendum and have three options: a Yes option for the original proposition — Hard Brexit, A Yes option for the Government's proposition — yet undecided, and, finally, a No/Remain option.

This is possibly the best approach that the campaigners for a second referendum may take. A three-option referendum would allow those who voted to leave to reaffirm their voice while also giving them the opportunity to be more specific about the type of exit. It also provides the Remain option that the campaign is seeking.

A Challenge to Authority

A final way to approach a second Brexit referendum is by mapping it onto the second Swiss mode of the “optional referendum.” The referendum will be seen as a challenge to the Government's plan. Of course, a key difference here is that Brexit originated with a referendum and is being carried out by Parliament to respect the will of the people. A sentiment echoed by the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, who has said that “Brexit cannot be stopped.”

Here the question becomes: what are the optics of a second referendum on the same issue? Leaning back on Swiss history, we can see that some ideas were not put to bed after one referendum and earned themselves another. A major example of this is women’s suffrage, which was put to a referendum once in 1959, failed, and then was put again to a referendum in 1971, when it succeeded. Of course, the Swiss Government runs on direct democracy, so this is less challenging to the authority of the Government than asking for a second vote on Brexit. This is until one realizes that, technically, the referendum that was held on Brexit in 2016 was a second referendum with the first happening in 1975, with a result of 67% of the population voting to remain in the EU. This after the UK officially joined the EU in 1973. Furthermore, and this is also key to the discussion, the 2016 Brexit referendum is legally non-binding, which means it is simply advisory. Parliament is not obliged to act based on the first referendum, meaning it can choose to ignore it and call for a second to secure greater legitimacy.

The argument against this transforms into one of time: having a second referendum now would be too soon! Yet there is no rational reason why this stance should be held; there are no rules, formal or informal, in the UK on when referendums should be held. In fact, one can easily point to the low level of trust in the Government (78% of the population think that the Government is doing a bad job at Brexit) as a solid reason as to why a second referendum should happen. This support can be supplemented by the blatant lies that were circulated during the first referendum as well as all the new information that was uncovered since the referendum.

Power is Power

At the end of the day, the decision on whether or not a second referendum will happen can only be made by Parliament itself. With the official opposition taking a stance in line with that of the government, it is difficult to see that a second referendum will come to happen. This is especially true now that Parliament has a meaningful say on what the final deal should look like, providing MPs with more leverage that they can cash in for political favours.

No matter what happens, it should be made clear that a call for a second referendum is not a call against democracy; it is a call to reaffirm democracy after the blunderings of the Government. It also goes without saying that the results of a second referendum may just as well be the same as the first.

If a second referendum is held, however, the Government should make sure that ample time for debate and discussion is given and a more stringent fact-checking approach is taken towards the campaign for either.