The Great Constitution of 1848
17 April 2021
The Constitution of 1848 marked the beginning of a rapid development of the new Swiss Confederation in almost all areas.
The confederation of sovereign cantons in 1815 became a federal state of three political layers: the federal level, the cantons and the municipalities.
The principle of sovereign cantons remained unchanged with one important difference: unless the cantons (and the People) had transferred powers to the federal level (see Swiss Spectator 11 December 2018, A Brief History of the Constitution, 9 November 2020, The Cantons).
Until 1848, Switzerland was a predominantly agricultural society with industrial and commercial centres of excellence in publishing, trade, science, chocolate, textiles, watches, machinery and turbines for ships and an incipient tourism and financial services industry.
However, there was no industrial revolution or railway construction yet. In many (mountainous) regions there was great poverty. Switzerland was an emigration country, like most European countries.
The country had no unity of weights, measures of length and width, coins or even the measurement of time. Tolls were levied between the cantons and the infrastructure was underdeveloped.
Nor did Switzerland have any raw materials (coal, iron ore). With one important exception: water and granite, which played an important role after 1848.
There was no political stability, for example the division of Basel into the cantons Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft (1833), a kind of civil war in the canton Valais (between Haut-Valais and Bas-Valais) and the Sonderbundskrieg in 1847.
The country was surrounded by monarchies and aristocratic systems. Thousands of political opponents of Habsburg, the Russian tsar, the French and German kings and grand dukes acted against them from Swiss soil. The European rulers regarded Switzerland as a haven of anarchy and political extremists.
The modernisation and political stability after 1848 were made possible by this Constitution, entrepreneurial and pioneering spirit, cosmopolitan and open mentality, education and science, risk-taking investments and export networks.
This Constitution was a masterpiece of statesmanship at the right time in the right place in a country that in 1847 had experienced a brief civil war.
The state immediately entered into trade agreements and entrepreneurs traded with the whole world. The United Kingdom became one of the most important partners.
The Swiss franc was introduced, the toll between the cantons disappeared and the country became an internal market.
Railways, chemicals, food, engineering, tourism, financial services, (electrical) engineering and other infrastructural projects changed the country in one generation.
The country was one of the most modern (and mondain) nations in 1875 and was called a laboratory of progress.
The Swiss Confederation of 1848 was based on centuries-old political, economic, personal, cultural and linguistic relationships, exchanges, experiences and systems.
This Confederation created the conditions for the modernisation and industrial revolution à la Suisse.
The Constitution of 1848 was no accident, but a well balanced political system based on this ‘bottom up’ creation.
The main consideration were: what is possible, sustainable and feasible in the multicultural, multireligious and multilingual country.
The role and function of the municipalities, cantons and federal level, the two chambers of the parliament, democracy, the relationship between business and government, international politics, the organisation and financing of education, hospitals, social systems or defence were taken into account
As a non-NATO member, the country is one of the very few European countries to meet NATO standards nowadays (along with Sweden, the UK and Norway).
This constitution saw various important adaptions in the course of 150 years, but the principles of the 19th century remained valid, topical and relevant up till today.
Innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, a strong small and medium-sized enterprise sector and its excellent education, a fine social security system, responsible monetary policy, pacta sunt servanda and a solid legal system, a cosmopolitan mentality, a diverse industrial, services and commercial sector, excellent research facilities and scholars, good governance and, above all, the commitment of citizens are (still) the pillars of this democratic´Wirtschaftswunder´ in the middle of Europe.
Direct democracy, federalism, subsidiarity
The strongest points are the direct democracy, federalism, subsidiarity and adaptation to new circumstances, step by step, but always in consultation and communication with the citizens, entrepreneurs and the cantons and never as a measure imposed from above, top-down.
That is why it takes long for foreigners with permanent residence to obtain citizenship: citizenship has to be earned and is not a right.
The right to vote for women was introduced late (1971). Not because the country is unfriendly to women. On the contrary, as early as 1870, women were studying at universities and were active in social life (associations). (See also Swiss Spectator 14.1.2021, Fifty years of women’s right to vote).
But once initiated, modernisation goes quickly and efficiently, as shown, for example, by the high level and top positions of female politicians, the creativity in the art sector and the high number of start-ups and patents.
Switzerland created the foundations for prosperity and stability in the nineteenth century, one hundred years before the European Union was founded.
The continuity and economic growth after 1960 are also based on these conditions and not on the EU, which was hardly effective until 1992.
Israel, Uruquay, Norway, New-Zealand or Taiwan are also rather ‘isolated’, but succesfull.
The Swiss model cannot be put into perspective, not even at European level.
Switzerland is not isolated or an island, but an oasis of good governance, direct democracy and political system.
The EU is based on quantity, Switzerland on quality. The country is a global player in the middle of Europe.
Source: J. Jung, Das Laboratorium des Fortschritts. Die Schweiz im 19. Jahrhundert (Basel, 2019).