What lessons can we learn from the making of modern Switzerland?

Andrew Gallagher recently wrote an op-ed for Slugger (here) on the mechanics of Irish re-unification. This has become very topical following the UK’s Brexit referendum, with a feeling that ‘the harder the Brexit, the more likely is a border poll and reunification’. While readers of Slugger will have been only too aware of the potential problems that Brexit would bring, there was a very considerable lack of understanding in Britain, and particularly in England; there it was a ‘remote’ issue. Andrew described some of the possible problems and difficulties around reunification. Before partition, all of Ireland had a common legal system; afterwards, while both retained the common law system and carried previous laws forward, subsequent laws diverged. Both parts have different political systems; the fully independent south has a bicameral legislature, the north has now a devolved Assembly, with only powers granted by the UK government available. The north uses the £ sterling, the south the Euro. How might such two parts, now quite distinct, be ‘amalgamated’? I suggested that what happened in Switzerland in the mid 19th century might give some insights, even if not a definitive model.

Before 1848 Switzerland did not exist in the way we think of a modern nation-state. It was a ‘confederation’ of individual cantons; there was no central, federal government worth speaking of. There was a Diet or Tagsatzung, an Assembly with a Secretariat, the entirety of which could fit in a single coach which was useful as it trundled between three cities where it met, for there was no capital. It was essentially toothless, but it was cheap. The members from the cantons sent envoys to this Assembly; these often had to refer back for instructions. There was no common currency, no reserve bank, and no Swiss franc. There was no common system of weights and measures; internal freedom of movement was very limited; you could not be a ‘Swiss citizen’. All of this changed after a short and ‘very civil war’. But first, a little history in a simplified and skeletal form.

The conventional date of the origin of the country is 1 August 1291. On that date, representatives of the cantons of Unterwalden (divided into two parts, Obwalden and Nidwalden), Uri and Schwyz met in a meadow, the Rütli, on the banks of the Urnersee, the southern part of Lake Lucerne [the “lake of the four forest cantons”]. There they swore a perpetual oath of mutual assistance in times of need. They were the Eidgenossen, the ‘companions of the oath’ [Eid = Oath]. Gradually, other cantons joined and enlarged the Eidgenossenshaft, or ‘Confederation’. This differed from a Federation in that it is a voluntary alliance from which any member may withdraw; the use today of confederation is really an historical throwback. A translation of ‘canton’ is ‘county’, but this wasn’t and isn’t an adequate description. They were small, fiercely and jealously independent states, with their own laws and political mechanisms. Mercenary service was an important source of income (and pensions) until a major defeat in 1515, after which the confederation declared itself neutral. This perpetual neutrality was confirmed at the Peace of Westphalia, and the confederation was confirmed as independent of the Holy Roman Empire. An establishment of city based patricians ruled each canton as an Ancien Régime. What is now the Italian speaking canton of Ticino was a ‘subject territory’ of the Confederation; the Pays de Vaud was subject to rule from Bern.

Napoleon invaded Switzerland in 1798; this was partly an ‘invasion by invitation’ from, for example, Vaud who wanted to be liberated from Bern, and partly a treasure seeking looting adventure. Napoleon imposed a centralised Republic, the Helvetik; this was thoroughly despised, and he had to ‘mediate’ a few years later, largely restoring the Ancien Régime. He did achieve some ‘housekeeping’; for example, the pocket republic of Gersau, all 10 square miles of it, was amalgamated with canton Schwyz. In 1803 the ‘subject territory’, effectively a colony, of Ticino chose to become a canton and join the confederation as an equal member, as did Vaud.

The Congress of Vienna again confirmed the perpetual, armed neutrality of this confederation, and fiddled around with the borders. These have remained intact, apart from some minor technical adjustments, ever since. Having lost their hegemony over Vaud, Bern was compensated with the northern part of the territory of the prince-bishop of Basel. As a Bernese grumbled, ‘they have taken away the granary and given us the attic’. (This became canton Jura in 1979.) The Swiss in 1814-5 had another go at a constitution amongst themselves, declaring it to be eternal and immutable; there was no change mechanism within it.

There were political, industrial, economic, and confessional problems at this time. Rural Bern wasn’t happy with rule by the ‘Gentlemen of Bern’; they ‘with becoming elegance surrendered their powers to the massed peasantry’, and kept the canton intact. The patricians of Basel weren’t at all elegant; after a small war, that canton split into two.

The absence of a central authority delayed the progress that other states could make; the first railway in the confederation, the Spanisch-Brötli-Bahn or ’Spanish-bap railway’ didn’t open until 1847 (here), much later than elsewhere.

In politics, liberals, radicals and conservatives argued but made no substantive progress. The conservatives were mostly Catholics but also included Protestant elements; it’s too simplistic to think that only liberals and radicals were Protestants; some were conservative, and vice-versa.

Various events (on both sides) in the 1840s were seen by liberal or conservative cantons as threatening; the latter formed themselves into an alliance, the Sonderbund. This was expressly forbidden by the constitution, and this Sonderbund was ordered to disband by the Tagsatzung. The members refused, and the result was the Sonderbundskrieg, a civil war between them and the confederation. The confederation chose a conservative Catholic as the head or general of the army; the Sonderbund chose an aristocratic conservative Protestant as their general. Dufour, the confederation’s general, chose to intimidate the Sonderbund psychologically through a show of strength rather than though major pitched battles; he insisted that all the wounded should be treated, anticipating the efforts of the later Red Cross of which he was the first president. The campaign, in November 1847, lasted less than a month; a few hundred were wounded, less than 100 were killed before the Sonderbund capitulated. While there were those disappointed in the result, and who went into exile, there was no general triumphalist sense of ‘we won, you lost, get over it’ such as after the Brexit referendum.

What happened next is, to my mind, quite astonishing; as is what didn’t happen.

The ‘winners’ did not seek to impose a settlement on the ‘losers’; rather the victors and the vanquished sat down as equals in the Rathaus zum Äusseren Stand (a salon originally designed as a debating chamber for intending politicians) in Bern, where the Tagsatzung would have been sitting, to discuss the issues, and to formulate a new constitution. (The salon is now a restaurant.)

The essential problem was how to preserve the (conservative view of the) ancient rights and independence of the cantons with the (liberal and radical view of the) need for a centralised, modern federal government able to take decisions to overhaul and to properly represent the country abroad yet without the larger cantons overwhelming the smaller ones; and without the structures of the hated Helvetik.

They determined on a system similar to that of the US. There would be a bicameral confederal parliament. One house would be elected in proportion to the population, the other would have two representatives from each canton (the half-cantons of Basel City and Country, of the two Appenzells, and of Obwalden and Nidwalden sent one each). Neither chamber was superior to the other; any legislation had to be approved by both chambers. The parliament would select seven citizens to form an executive responsible (in today’s terms) for economic affairs, finance, external affairs, defence, justice, internal affairs, and the environment. One member of the executive would be chair for a year, and thus ‘president’ as primus inter pares, but responsible for the accreditation of foreign ambassadors etc. Though not really explicitly stated, the sovereign of the country was and is its citizens. The new constitution was approved in a referendum.

Various federal institutions were duly established, and rather than all being centralised, were ‘distributed’ around the country.  Bern was chosen as the capital.

The Swiss franc was introduced to replace the multiple other currencies then in use; a standardised system of weights and measures replaced those of the individual cantons; internal customs were abolished.

Many of the ancient rights of the cantons were maintained; each had an individual cantonal constitution and parliament, laws and taxation, and education. Beforehand, you were a citizen of your canton; now, as a citizen of that canton, you became a Swiss citizen, with the freedom of movement to settle anywhere in the country. There are 26 cantons, including the half-cantons, today; and thus 26 varieties of taxation, education etc. While close to the local populations, this doesn’t come cheap, nor is it flexible.

Above all, this new constitution was mutable, it could be changed as times and conditions altered; the most recent version is that of 1999. (There is an English translation here.) There were significant alterations in the 1870s.  The use of referendums was enlarged, and ‘initiatives’ were introduced; any Swiss citizen who gains enough signatures can challenge any federal law, or seek additions and changes. A recent referendum was about dehorning cattle; a farmer felt that this was not acceptable to the cows, and sought funding for any extra expense; this was turned down. And while this particular Bernese farmer will continue to let his cattle grow horns, he will accept the result.

There are four national languages, German, French, Italian and Romansch. The first three are official languages; none has precedence. In the Irish Republic, the Bunreacht na hÉireann (though originally drafted in English) has precedence over the English version.

The UK’s Brexit ‘advisory’ referendum was decided by a simple majority; a majority for Leave in England and Wales numerically overrode the majorities for Remain in Scotland and N Ireland. In an equivalent Swiss referendum there would have to be a majority of the popular vote, and a majority of the cantons for any change to be legitimate. In such a Swiss referendum, voters would receive a comprehensive booklet detailing the arguments of the proponents and the response of the executive, with the results of the parliamentary votes.

What lessons can we draw from the events in Switzerland in 1848? How could they be applicable to the situation in both parts of Ireland today, where Brexit threatens an economic cataclysm? Should NI withdraw from the Union, and seek a reunification with the Republic, something that would have to be agreed by both parties? Would our politicians have the breadth of vision to contemplate a major reconfiguration of the constitutions of both polities while preserving (most of) the identities of the two parts? It was done in Switzerland; the potential destruction of the confederation was averted, and the entire country prospered. It was done; it can be done.

Photo by csr_ch is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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