Lea Raible and Leah Trueblood: The Swiss System of Referendums and the Impossibility of Direct Democracy

UK Constitutional Law Association

The referendums in the United Kingdom of 2011, 2014, and 2016 have sparked a debate about the merits of direct democracy. In this debate references to the system of referendums in Switzerland take one of two forms: either as (i) a sui generis case of no relevance or (ii) a demonstration of the virtues of referendums and direct democracy simpliciter. The aim of this post is to challenge both of these approaches. We argue instead that the Swiss system demonstrates that it is necessary for referendums to be integrated into representative processes in order for their use to be consonant with other democratic values. The differences between liberal democracy in the UK and Switzerland are of degree rather than kind, and the Swiss experience helps to answer the questions of how, when, and why referendums may be justifiably used in liberal democracies, including the UK.

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