Back in December 2011 David Cameron used Britain’s EU veto and caused a lot of ill feeling with its EU partners for the sake of placating the ultra-right wing Eurosceptic part of his party. This was welcomed by the Eurosceptics, and one of them, Mark Reckless said on BBC Radio 4’s Today program “Now we can be more like Switzerland.” He was joined in the media many times by commentators, bloggers and newspaper reporters. Guests on BBCs late night Newsnight news program used it all the time – but strangely, only the right wing ones. The ones who fought against the AV referendum, who want Brussels to devolve power to Westminster, but who aren’t willing to devolve power to the regions. Plus a few uninformed commentators looking to fill column inches of course.
Do any of these people actually understand just now much Britain would have to change to really become more like Switzerland? I do. I live in Switzerland and can tell you, UK right wing politicians wouldn’t like it – but you might.
First of all, the voting system would have to change from the current “First Past the Post” system to Proportional Representation with multiple representatives in each constituency elected using the Party List system combined with individual choice. And the important Parliaments would be the County ones, not the London one. Taxes would be raised and spent locally, and not sanitised through the Whitehall machine so that nobody knows which money is spent on what. Not only the country, but each County would have to have its own written Constitution which defined how politics worked. Education policy would be set by the Counties, not by London. Defense spending would not be spent on wars – and wars would be illegal. All men between 18 and 40 would be conscripted into serving in the army for two weeks each year. Everyone would have to carry a National ID card.
There would be some things Westminster could look after – motorways, trains and airports; the army, and border controls (but not immigration policy); social security; relations with foreign countries; the national Economy – but with no control over the main tax and spending departments I guess they’d be less interested in that too. Politics though would be more about forming a consensus amongst all parties before acting on something. While this might be slower, it doesn’t need to be undone in five years time when the next election comes around, which means in the long term more things get done. That brings an end to short-termism, and long term investment becomes possible. To assist in that, the Parliament chamber would be changed to an oval, so as to be less adversarial.
In Switzerland each Canton, or County to you and me, has it’s own set of laws governing tax collection, tax rates and tax allowances and exemptions. They differ over Inheritance Tax, Gift Tax, Wealth Tax, and even more so over Income Tax. Thankfully Capital Gains Tax doesn’t exist for private investors (except maybe on houses, but since they hardly change value from year to year that’s no big deal). Not only do the Swiss Counties raise their own taxes, they also choose how to spend them. Not just the Counties, but the individual Towns too would be setting the Income Tax Rates for their residents. When people move town, they would have to deregister with one authority, and register with another. But the Counties would keep taxes low as they would be competing with each other for residents and businesses to register with them – unless the residents had voted for a new infrastructure project that needed financing and they thought it would be a benefit so agreed to a temporary tax rise to pay for it. Taxes would be progressive, not banded, and thus fairer. All interest would be tax deductible – mortgage, loans, credit card etc. Old Age Pensions would be funded by VAT and tobacco taxes. Like a hotel bill, everything you paid for where you lived would be itemised, so you knew your taxes were spent on the things you wanted, not only the things the politicians wanted.
People would vote six times a year in Referendums that could create laws the politicians would have to enforce. And in the Counties too. Imagine, people not just voting, but being more involved in the law and not letting the politicians spin rubbish stories at them so easily.
Oh, and the best bits? Parliament would be part time, 3 months a year only. Imagine, politicians would have to get real jobs! Not only that, but the role of Prime Minister would become ceremonial only and would revolve around a cabinet of just seven Ministers, each one having a go for 12 months at a time, just to meet foreign dignitaries, not to indulge their friends or financial backers. It would be the end of a London-centric, Whitehall dominated UK. Nearly all political power – and certainly the majority of the tax raising power – would be devolved to the far flung regions of the country.
Then, the economy would boom, people would get richer, the North would become successful again, politics would become more stable. But each politician would get his own way, his party’s way, and his backer’s way, far less often. Would they give up their power to make a better country? Somehow I don’t think we even need to debate that.