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How a Swiss canton voted to deny a vegan citizenship – because she was “annoying”

The Swiss vote in more referendums than anywhere else. But in doing so, they reveal when direct democracy turns ugly.

Following the result of the EU referendum, the only one in which I have been eligible to vote, I’m not completely sold on referendums. Unlike Ireland, apparently, given they’ve endured 35 since the 1970s.

Despite having spent over €133m on the 15 referendums held this century, the Irish show no signs of slowing, and are set to be presented with no fewer than ten ballot papers over the next two years. Seven of which will be referendums.

Topics on the agenda include abortion, blasphemy, and reducing the voting age. Unlike in the UK, where elected MPs can vote on our behalf, the Irish constitution can be reformed only through a system of direct democracy. But does this make for a happier population? Or a nation at war with itself?

To find out, you could look to the Swiss, who, as a nation, make more trips to the ballot box than anybody else on earth. If Ireland seemed a bit extra, they’ve got nothing on Switzerland, which, since 1970, has held a frankly mind-blowing 397 referendums and popular initiatives. The former concern citizens’ amendments to parliamentary decisions; the latter a vote on popular proposals from the public, for law changes or new laws altogether.

Given Switzerland has had something to vote on approximately every three months for the past 47 years, it’s perhaps unsurprising that their average turnout is low: hovering around 45 per cent on national votes. That said, a 2016 study found that 90 per cent of people had voted in at least one of the past 20 elections – suggesting, understandably, turnout depends on the issue.

On 11 March 2012, Switzerland voted on whether everybody should receive six weeks paid holiday, up from four. Polling station queues would surely snake around blocks nationwide should the UK hold that referendum tomorrow; with Brits overwhelmingly declaring that yes, more time off work would be nice, thanks. See you sometime in September, probably. Sensible Switzerland, however, did not care for an extra fortnight’s holiday.

Based on this one example, you’d be forgiven for thinking increased constitutional responsibility renders citizens more politically level-headed. But since I have to confess to clicking on a date at random, it’s in no way a scientific case study; as is made obvious by the case of Nancy Holten.

When asked about Switzerland’s democratic model, the actress and model, who lives in the Swiss canton of Aargau, is quick to offer praise. “I think it's good that people can start their own initiatives and vote democratically,” she says. “But that also means using it responsibly and not allowing yourself to be guided by emotions, as is the case now in Switzerland.” She cites a 2009 initiative in which the construction of minarets was outlawed when 57 per cent of voters came out in favour of a ban proposed by the anti-immigration Swiss People's Party, which is critical of Islam.

That Dutch-born Holten is in favour of Switzerland’s direct democracy is significant, given she has more reason than most to oppose it. Holten, 43, has lived in Switzerland since she was eight-years-old. She has two Swiss children. Yet her citizenship application has been rejected twice by local residents, who often have a say in the naturalisation process in Switzerland.

Voters in her village took an apparent dislike to her veganism and anti-cowbell campaigning, and she was deemed “too annoying” to be given her passport.

“The people here in my church gathered against me and came together to vote against my naturalisation. Unfortunately, that happened two times. The second time even more citizens came,” Holten says, claiming that it was mainly men, most of whom did not know her personally, who took issue with her.

Holten has since won her case on appeal, after the canton agreed her village’s rejection was unjustified, allowing her to bypass a third local application. She expects to be granted a Swiss passport in the next few months, after obtaining the federal court’s approval – the third and final stage of the process.

Although one reason she wants citizenship is to vote, Holten admits there are issues with Switzerland’s democratic model. For a start, she says, communities should not have the power to reject an applicant’s request for citizenship, explaining that in some areas laws have been changed so that the local council alone votes, in a manner that she describes as “more objective and neutral”.

So where should the line be drawn? Because there’s no denying that the Swiss are generally pretty content; they topped the 2015 list of the world’s happiest countries, falling to fourth in 2017 – behind a trio of cheery Scandinavian nations, but still 15 places ahead of the far gloomier UK.

It seems as though there is a correlation between increasing public political responsibility and a happier population; yet, offer too much responsibility and people are seemingly able to go mad with power, discriminating against a woman simply because she’s concerned about some cows.

Are there certain matters that we, the people, just shouldn’t be trusted to vote on? Well, yes, says American political scientist and philosopher Jason Brenan: basically all of them.

“With very few exceptions, almost every referendum asks more of the public than they can give,” he says. “When we survey voters, we find that the overwhelming majority lack even the most basic information relevant to current political questions, let alone the social scientific knowledge needed to use that information.”

The solution, he says? “Have referenda for local questions, such as whether we should increase spending on schools or parks. But for the big questions, let parliament and representative democracy do its job.”

Brenan says the cognitive demands of local issues are far lower and the stakes more immediate; offering citizens more incentive to become better informed on the issue.

Yet, with many nations turning to referendums for questions of morality – such as abortion and the death penalty – that evoke especially strong emotional reactions, many would be unhappy to sit back and let politicians decide for them.

The solution offered by Michael Bruter, a political science professor at the London School of Economics, is to either hold the referendum at the very end of a political process, as a means to vote on politicians' “extremely developed and comprehensive” policy plans, or at the outset to amass public opinion, which can then be used to guide specific policy plans, without necessarily being treated as binding.

A solution with which, right now, it's hard to imagine anybody but the Brexiteer ultras arguing.

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.