So the Swiss are to have a referendum on banning the burqa. Meanwhile, in Britain we are obsessed with the sexual assault of women. Not the seemingly endless horrific sexual assaults associated with the Religion of Peace, you understand, but those on Hollywood A-listers by a single nasty individual few had heard of until five minutes ago.
To say our politics is moribund is an understatement. As the commentator Douglas Murray says, our elites are willing to discuss only secondary issues. Europe? Islam? Immigration? Demography? Just kick that can as far as possible, please.
Moreover, when forcibly handed a primary concern to deal with – Brexit – politicians have by and large shrunk from the challenge, acting with petulance, arrogance and immaturity; treating the issue, as they so often do, like their own private Game of Thrones as they jostle for advantage. Government and Parliament have turned what should be a galvanising time of national renewal into an uninspiring, technocratic farce.
Why is our system of government so anti-intellectual, anti-innovation and unresponsive? Part of the reason is the two-party duopoly. In any large organisation, creating a culture of innovation is extremely hard. Truly disruptive thinking is quickly smothered by professional jealousies, turf wars, inertia and fear for existing careers and functions. Instead, promotion and recognition often go to the cautious, competent and conventional, and, of course, the politically savvy careerists who make sure they are never around when the solids hit the air conditioning. It is the same in politics: backbench MPs often show an interest in new ideas but are largely ignored, whereas people such as Theresa May become Prime Minister.
Furthermore, by the time they get into positions of high seniority career politicians have spent many years at the coalface and lost touch with society. The sheer daily grind of high office also dulls even the finest of minds. Original thinking requires time for mental relaxation, reflection and lots of it, thus serious thinking tends to be done only in opposition. After only a few years in power, even the best administrations atrophy and enter an intellectual death spiral. Cut off, drifting and bereft of ideas, politicians fall back on the time-dishonoured – and highly socially destructive – technique of appealing to niche target demographics, the present Tory administration being a particularly dismal example. Perhaps in consequence a fractured, politically correct society is the natural end state of a representative democratic system. Judging by the state of Western societies, it would certainly seem so.
What representative democracy needs is competition, and this is where the Swiss system of direct democracy based on citizen petitions (and mandatory for constitutional changes) excels. It runs in parallel to the representative legislature but with strengths of nimbleness, innovation and high sensitivity to voter needs. It also decouples the formulation of policy from those whose careers depend on implementing it: ideas can be thought through, discussed, refined, disseminated and finally decided upon by an engaged electorate with the time and energy to do so rather than career politicians with little time and personally much to lose. It is especially attractive in the internet age where coalitions of interests and mass campaigns can be easily formed and dissolved as the situation requires.
In a British context, we can envisage a Parliament elected as it is now, petition-triggered referenda that are interpreted and enacted by Parliament plus a binding right of Parliamentary recall, also triggered by referendum. Faced with such a Sword of Damocles, politicians will become much more responsive to public concerns. As in Switzerland, the people will ultimately make the big decisions, the politicians the small ones. The role of the executive and political parties will be diminished, but arguably not the role of MPs.
Finally, a word to those social conservatives who fear such a radical change would be un-British and un-conservative. Purely representative democracies throughout the West have become the enemy of social conservatism. Perhaps somewhat to our own surprise, the Brexit referendum showed that there is a morally acceptable democratic alternative, and that the people are capable of making decisions that are more far-sighted, more principled and considerably braver than the politicians.
Switzerland, of course, will never need a Brexit, because its people had the power to choose on EU membership and were wise enough to reject it. Unlike Britain, every big issue can be confronted before it becomes a national crisis. We may feel uneasy about unleashing populist passions that can decide whether or not to ban the burqa, but then you don’t associate Zurich with abominations such as Rotherham.