The Landsgemeinde: Switzerland's direct democracy.

I asked in a previous blog (entitled “Kenosis”) an ending question: “So where’s the archetypal democratic society in our world?”

I had before that defined democracy:

Every voice counts, every voice is heard, and every decision is made based on what the people say and think, NOT on what the government decides without the people’s consent.

This is, more accurately, a definition of direct democracy, which Wikipedia more closely defines thus:

“Direct democracy is a form of governance in which people collectively make decisions for themselves, rather than having their political affairs decided by representatives. Direct democracy is classically termed “pure democracy”.”

The idealistic appeal of this system of governance (or, if you’re an anarchist, autonomous non-governance) is obvious, but it is my contention that there is no “pure democracy” anywhere in the world. All decisions made, whether chosen directly (through petitions, referenda, or recalls), by consensus (through thorough discussion within communities that treats minority and majority views equally) or by representation (through elected officials who represent political viewpoints), are not going to be perfect in reflecting the views of the whole population, or even the majority of the population.

Consensus may come closest, but we do not have a way to get 62 million UK citizens into one place (except if that place is the United Kingdom and there was some way of video-linking everyone!). Geography seems to be the arbiter of fair political representation, and it won’t let us have it.

Thus, and of course, grassroots democracy comes to mind. This uses the principle of subsidiarity to make the case that as much decision-making authority as practical is to be shifted to the organization’s lowest geographic level of organization. This is because the local community CAN be influenced by our actions and our ideals far more than a whole nation can. Start small, build up a consensus, and share your community’s values and activity across your city, your country and the world.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this ideal of “grass roots localism” (in contrast to the hands off “localism” that the Conservative Party now seems to believe in) means the individual makes decisions, then the household, then the street, then the neighbourhood, then the district, then the town/city, then the sub-region, then the region, then the country, then the supra-national alliance. All of these are communities in their own right, but the decisions should be made from the bottom up and as a community, not as atomised individuals.

Inevitably, however, there will be times when one person will be working harder on something than others, times when people take on responsibility for the upkeep and progress of the community’s interests, perhaps because they have a particular specialism or interest. Representative democracy, whether by election or consensus, is not an inevitability, but it does seem the most logical way of representing a whole city’s wishes in a manageable way.

This does not mean that all the worst excesses of that system, as we know it, are required. Take political parties. It is clear that the majority of communities these days are not formed of people who are members of political organisations, but by consensus within communities it is hard to rid the world of political parties – there will, it seems, always be slight divergences in belief just large enough to justify ideological positions and the creation of political parties. However, partisan interests bring some of the worst things to communities, and would it not be easier just to ban political parties?

Are communities, in themselves, non-partisan? This is akin to asking if communities are an amorphous blob of activity in one direction. The clear answer is always no, as even communities of two (e.g. married couples, perhaps) disagree about some things. Thus, partisanship begins with the individual, and is an inevitable consequence of diversity and there being, to be blunt, more than one person in the world.

However, the non-partisan system of democracy is worth bearing in mind. Independent opinions are always important, and those who stand for election as independents can raise some of the more troubling issues that political parties might not have the scope, or the all-round expertise, to deal with (even if they can’t raise much cash – regrettably). An ultimate goal would be for society to be less based around partisanship, factions and interest groups, but more around the issues themselves, and focused on those with the expertise to solve problems.

So, let’s go back to the question and look at the world. Where is there that fulfils the criteria of a democratic society? It would need to have:

  1. an emphasis on grassroots decision-making
  2. a consensus-based model for governing
  3. an emphasis, when not conflicting with 1., towards the participation of minorities or those who are not often consulted
  4. a constitution that was malleable and could be reformed easily by the people
  5. no monarch or singular person as elected head of state (even if elected)

The answer is, quite weirdly, Switzerland.

It has no monarch. It has no single head of state. Instead, it has a federal council which acts as a collective head of state. (These are not directly elected, instead elected by the Swiss Federal Assembly, the equivalent of both of our Houses of Parliament voting together.) The full renewal of a term on the council lasts for four years (I would place it at two). This is the consensus model of governing a country – each person is accountable to the other six on the Council, and the titles of President and Vice-President rotate yearly.

A referendum MUST be held on any proposed change to the constitution. A referendum can be requested for any law to be passed. If a citizen wants, they can call a referendum on a law that has already been passed.

While they don’t have a right of recall on the federal level to reject their representatives, some cantons allow recall elections to take place if you can gather enough signatures. (Cantons are the principle of subsidiarity made flesh – the local community that, in at least two cases, can still be gathered together in general popular assemblies to make decisions – proper grass-roots!)

Swiss democracy is not without its problems – with minorities and the underpriveleged not getting as much representation, and the top table being dominated by just four parties, like most other democracies – but it has constitutionally built a democratic example for us all.


Free and fair.

Please think of these places today as you cast your ballot in a free and fair election.

Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bhutan, Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chad, Chechnya, China, Congo (Brazzaville), Congo (Kinshasa), Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guinea, Iran, Iraq, Kashmir, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Laos, Libya, Maldives, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tibet, Togo, Transnistria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Western Sahara, Zimbabwe.

Let’s make our democracy stronger and stand in solidarity in whatever way we can with those who still hunger and thirst for a time when they can have the choice of who governs them. Voting is worth it.

We are not nothing.

Not interested.

You’re all the same.

You only come around at election time when you want something from us.

I’m just making dinner.

You think you’re better than everyone else.

Go away mate.

I’m a bit busy right now.

You’re not socialists.

You don’t believe in nuclear, do you?

I haven’t really looked into it yet.

I’m not voting for them again.

You’ve got my vote.


Whatever happens tomorrow…

We are not nothing.


Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds,—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved—still warm—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

“Futility”, by Wilfred Owen


So where should we first look for this political, this ideological, this social, and this spiritual utopia?

We look to our world, because it’s all we have. We look at societies and nations who are beginning to live and learn through the lens of idealism, not just pragmatism.

And if truth alone be our master, then we should look first to the foundations, the building blocks, the first principles of our society.

Should our utopia be founded on belief in God, or non-belief in God, or freedom to practice either?

Should our utopia be one where as many religions as possible prosper, or one where the society is united by a common spiritual pursuit?

The answers to these questions are not simple, and I think they’re only meant to be answered in practice, and not hypotheticals. If the UK government turned around tomorrow and said that their society was going to be founded from now on on belief in God, how would that make the non-believers feel, act or think? It certainly wouldn’t be inclusive, and it would be a regression of our basic freedoms.

Similarly, we cannot purposively pull everyone in the same “spiritual direction”, even if this somehow does work with the variety of beliefs of the populace.

We are unable to make the world in our own image. If you could click your fingers and make everyone in the world believe in the same first principles and foundational beliefs as you, would you do it?

In one of his songs, the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne sings “we cannot know ourselves or what we’d really do, with all your power…what would you do?”

He may be talking about the President of the United States, or the Almighty, but his question is a truly interesting one.

One of my most treasured thoughts is the idea that in creating the world, God empties Self of all power. All power is handed over to the universe created, the conscious and unconscious life that has been given freely. God says “it’s yours”. In theology, it’s called kenosis (Greek for “emptying”), and it’s wrapped up with thoughts about Jesus’ earthly existence, and his death. It appears, however, in at least some form in most of the world’s religions and belief systems.

Perhaps, then, our utopian society would give up power as its first principle. But from whom and to whom?

If government is seen as analogous to God in this structure, I think that’s an error. Governments are no more and no less perfect than the totality of the people that they serve, and to say that power rests with government as a core principle is not right.

Power, let’s face it, should be with the people. But not one set of people, and definitely not the most “prestigious” people who are in positions of influence or power.

This is guiding us to one obvious conclusion: democracy.

Every voice counts, every voice is heard, and every decision is made based on what the people say and think, NOT on what the government decides without the people’s consent.

So where’s the archetypal democratic society in our world?


“Look at earth from outer space…everyone must find a place…”

Perhaps everyone’s spiritual home should be in the dying of summer.

We get our hopes up, they’re our summertime hopes. Those hopes that say that everything matters, and that the world can be better, and it is great now anyway, and that you are making a difference.

Somehow, though, they always die a little – at least for another year. We go through summertime after summertime, skipping from one to the next, each one a new home, a new place to build our dreams around.

My summertimes started with a nugget of truth – action is better than inaction. It may have been drawn from a dancing, uninhibited rejoicing at the fall of Apartheid, or the simple awareness of well-meaning family. It may have been that morning in 1992 when everyone’s hopes and dreams died for another five years. I don’t know.

Labour, but middle-class with it, my nearest influences have always provoked – since I was old enough to feel it – a sense of not-quite. The sight of a sweaty local party candidate emerging from my sister’s bedroom, the canvassing we were roped into. Local politics is all a little not-quite.

But the final moment of rejoicing in 1997 came too soon for me. Born five years earlier, and I might be defending New Labour as we speak. But for those of us whose first global moment was 9/11 and its aftermath, it will always be hard to vote for them.

Then – the choice…over time. Apathy (popular), alternative (Lib Dem), anarchy (the Bristol scene), agnostic about party politics but wanting to influence decision makers (SPEAK) or altruism (Green). There’s a bit of all these in me. There’s a bit of all these, I would wager, in all of us.

But the Liberal Democrats took my brain. Question Time after Question Time I valued their approach, their stances, if not always their style. Charles Kennedy’s one-liners and chat-show appearances, Ming Campbell’s grounded-but-cheery reason, Simon Hughes’ slightly smarmy but pointed rebukes and Julia Goldsworthy’s normality. But when Charles turned to Ming, they lost something. And when Ming turned to Nick, they sort of gained it again, only for us to belatedly realise that we’d traded snakeoil for wolftickets. Bring back Charles, and then enter coalition discussions, we now think.

It falls to me to explain that, politically, I believe in democracy above all things. The airing of views, the discussion, the detail, and the dialectic is all important. No matter how flawed our party political and parliamentary system is (and it is – say yes to AV, as a babystep), I believe that we should revolutionise it not through tearing it down and criticising it, but from taking a positive stance and bargaining on flawed human beings’ capability to make the debate positive, and get legislation that is life-giving and life-changing and respectful of the dignity of people. That’s the big idea.

So, if our spiritual home is in the dying of summer, our political home should be in those first rays of sunlight on a clear, June morning – where we attest that truth alone suffices, that the positive step is the way ahead, that our realpolitik must move into its own summer, a summer that is always dying, and an endless one at that.

“Summer is dying, let’s go outside…”


You can’t die in two places at once, and you can’t be born in two places at once.

But after about a quarter of your life, you’re able to decide for yourself where you want to be.

What criteria have you used?

Often, cultural and national boundaries dictate our movements. We speak English and we know English culture, so we live in England. It seems easier.

But there is so much of the world that is English-speaking – at the last count 53 separate countries or entities spoke it as an official language, and that doesn’t even include the United States. Why not live in one of these places?

I use language as an example because I do feel it is very important to be able to speak the common tongue of an area in order to feel TRULY at home. This may seem a controversial statement, and it isn’t intended to be xenophobic or unwelcoming…but it must be incredibly hard for non-English speakers who arrive in Britain to make their home.

Still, more important than that for many of us is closeness to family. Of course, it’s possible to fly almost anywhere in the world within about 24 hours, but does that mean we feel comfortable with the distance? If I went and lived in Australia, I know I’d miss my family and friends and have to spend a lot of money getting back to visit, so I don’t do it.

And then the numbers games start – how many times should I return? How much would it cost? If being satisfied costs that much, and requires that much forward planning, and that many journeys, perhaps it’s just better to find an equidistant point between all your loved ones and be done with it?

I think, instead, we should just search our hearts. Do we feel more alive in the city or the country? Do we enjoy colder or warmer climates? Do we value fixed abodes or strive for fluid communities? Do the friends we love live nearby, and is the pull away by other factors enough to shift us?

These are the kind of questions to answer about home, and I’m still pondering them.