This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday December 8 2012
“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? – The cuckoo clock!”
Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, portentously intoned those words, from the great height of the Wiener Riesenrad, a Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park in Vienna, from which he looks down on the ant-like humans scurrying below. Lime, like many of today’s politicians, was able to cheerfully use his charisma to make money and disregard the human suffering he caused. Lime made his money selling contaminated medicines. on the black market Welles himself added those words to Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man. Welles is quoted as saying “When the picture came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks, as they are in fact German, native to the Black forest”..
Welles’s insertion was a travesty of the reality of Swiss history and echoes remarks made by the painter Whistler in a lecture published in 1888. The original Swiss were known as Helvetic Celts. They were subdued by the Romans and became free-born subjects of the Roman Empire. In the 13th century their independence was threatened by the Hapsburg Empire in nearby Austria. In 1291, the Forest Cantons formed an Everlasting League against the aggressor which developed into the Swiss Confederation. By the 16th century, the Confederation had 13 members and had developed a fearsome military force. Historian Douglas Miller has pointed out that during the period of time the Borgias flourished in Italy, the Swiss Confederation provided “the most powerful and feared military force in Europe”; this was not the peacefully neutral country it is today.
The Swiss nation as we know is very young. As the Website Direct Democracy Ireland commented: “Not five hundred years of democracy and peace, merely 162 years, in the epicentre of war-torn Europe, with enviable prosperity and direct democracy.”
Switzerland is a country of four languages which was, until recently, poor, backward and divided. It was established as a modern and devolved republic in 1848, the year of revolutions, and only became really established as a nation in 1891. It may not be generally realised that Switzerland, often thought of as an ancient democracy was the last Western republic to grant women’s suffrage. Women got the vote in Ceylon in 1931. The Swiss referendum on women’s suffrage was held on February 1, 1959. The majority of Switzerland’s men voted “no”, but in some cantons, women obtained the vote. The first Swiss woman to hold political office, Trudy Späth-Schweitzer, was elected to the municipal government of Riehen in1958. Swiss women did not gain the right to vote in federal elections until 1971. Appenzell Innerrhoden became the last Swiss canton, in 1991, to grant women the vote on local issues.
Constitutional theorist Albert Venn Dicey was an implacable enemy of Irish Home Rule and had railed against it in books, pamphlets, letters to and series in The Times.
In 1914 Dicey wrote about Switzerland:
“Never was there a country in which it seemed more difficult to produce national unity. The Swiss cantons are divided by difference of race, by difference of language, by difference of religion.” Dicey continued: “These distinctions till nearly the middle of the nineteenth century produced a kind of disunion among the Swiss people which in 1914 seems almost incredible. They forbade the existence of a common coinage; they allowed any one canton to protect the financial interest of its citizens against competition by the inhabitants of every other canton.”
A Swiss historian, William Martin, argued that his nation’s success was mainly because of its answering the needs of the time and addressing the needs of the future by the insertion of revision clauses in the federal and in all cantonal constitutions. The constitution of the Irish Free State in 1922 promised similar referendum choices but this was reneged on through successive amendments.
Contemporary Switzerland offers some positive examples of democracy to the rest of the world. In today’s Switzerland, a republic of seven million people, citizens’ law-making is exercised on all political levels – including almost 3,000 autonomous municipalities, 26 sovereign states and on the common, federal level.
Switzerland is still a representative democracy in that most laws are made by parliament. The important difference, however, between the Swiss system and the “indirect” democracy of Britain is that citizens are entitled to put almost every law decided by their representatives to a general vote.
If 50,000 signatures can be gathered within 100 days of the publication of a new law, a referendum is needed. In 96 out of 100 cases, no such referendum is triggered, because the parliamentary process enjoys a very high level of legitimacy. In 1993, the Swiss military chief of staff, as a citizen, collected the necessary signatures for a referendum to have a moratorium on military spending. Elsewhere this would constitute insubordination, or possibly mutiny.
According to Bruno Kaufman, president of IRI (Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, a transnational think-tank dedicated to research and education on the procedures and practices of modern direct democracy): “That is because the elected lawmakers know that their work will be seriously checked by the public, so they do a very good job indeed.”
Kaufman says: “Interestingly, the strong elements of direct democracy in Swiss politics have not weakened representative democracy or parliament. … It took many years, and many democratic movements, to get a more fine-tuned division of power, which now offers all forces and groups in the country a fair opportunity to take an active part in setting the political agenda, and in determining the final decision. And this is not simply oppositional: while most popular initiatives proposed by minority groups fail at the ballot box, most governmental proposals get support. Government in Switzerland is not delivering for people, but with them…Startlingly, those parts of the country where the people are most involved in politics also have better public services and stronger economies.”
According to Direct Democracy Ireland:
“The ultimate Swiss genius was the transformation of the country’s greatest liabilities, its political geography and related religious, cultural schisms and economic disparities into one of its greatest assets. By retaining the cantons’ independence and counteracting the huge disparities in populations [largest 1,242,000: smallest 15,000] through the Council of States and in referenda, they converted what might have been the “tyranny of the majority into transparent justice….The Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation is unlikely to be accepted as an ideal model; ruling élites [e.g. the Irish political parties] much prefer constitutions, where the people cannot interfere without the élite’s sanction”.
That could be said of other nations than Ireland.