In an addendum to his 1774 novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, one of the most significant works of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe finds within the central character’s fictitious estate a series of letters which in effect describe his grand tour. The first of these letters refers to the Swiss whom he meets on his travels through the alpine valleys and across the St Gotthard pass, a journey which Goethe himself had undertaken. His opinion makes the late Lord George Brown’s 1964 jibe at “The Gnomes of Zurich” look positively benign. 250 years ago Goethe rips a strip of the peasants who, the keep on repeating, had once liberated themselves from the oppressors but who, locked under snow in their little chalets which have to have stones placed on their roofs to prevent them from being blown away, have grown into small-minded and introspective oppressors themselves who improve their own state of misery by preserving in spirit the myth of their liberation. A quarter of a millennium later, their reputation remains fairly much the same.

Doing business Swiss-style is back in the news. According to a Sunday Times report – which Number 10 has since denied – Britain is mulling over Swiss-style ties with Brussels.

I grew up in Switzerland, was educated there and speak four of the three principal national languages. I have never attempted to master the fourth official language, Romansch, which is spoken by no more than a few tens of thousands of mountain folk in the east of the country but I command German, French and Italian and the fourth, unofficial language which is Swiss German. That is spoken as a mother tongue by just under 60% of the population. Whether Swiss German is a dialect or a language is moot, but send any German to Switzerland and ask them how much they understand and how much of the vocabulary and grammar they are conversive with and the question answers itself.  

Thanks to the freedom of movement agreements between Berne and Brussels, the urban centres such as Zurich are home to a significant minority of German citizens who next to never learn the local language and who along with the omnipresent German TV stations have brought about a watering down of the old indigenous tongue. An exception happens to be Ulrich Körner, the current CEO of Credit Suisse who, though born and originally educated in Saarbrücken in Germany, went on to complete his secondary and tertiary education in Switzerland and who can in fact pass as a local. But as the saying goes, it is the exception that proves the rule.

Switzerland with its impregnable neutrality – first pitched after the defeat of its army at the battle of Marignano in 1515 – has done well. During the subsequent five centuries it has provided the rest of Europe with brigades of mercenaries and, by way of the now ceremonial Papal Guard, still does. Thus, plundered wealth was sent back to the peaceful homeland and so it stayed until Napoleon I invaded in 1798, swept away the plutocratic Ancien Régime, established the Helvetic Republic and in doing so set the stage for the Federation as we know it today. From the collapse of the Second Empire of Napoleon III and through both World Wars the Swiss remained nominally neutral although they never missed a chance to make hay. Apart from willingly harbouring the wealth of both persecuted Jews and persecuting Nazis, Switzerland went through the war merrily selling armaments to Germany.

During the Biafran War – in 1967 Biafra attempted to secede from Nigeria which in turn led to a dreadful civil war which lasted until 1970 –  a group of Swiss university students wrecked a British trade fair in Basle in protest against Westminster’s formal support for the central government in Lagos. Shortly thereafter, it transpired that the family controlled firm of Oerlikon Bührle, manufacturer of amongst other the eponymous pompom guns, was not only supplying arms to both sides but that it was in fact shipping weapons which had been ordered by and paid for but never delivered to the Wehrmacht before May of 1945. Given the country’s official political and military neutrality, it was strictly illegal to trade pointy stuff with geographies in conflict or where such conflict might be imminent. Oops? Is the national sport skiing or performing elegant shapes of collective amnesia?

The myth of liberation which Goethe refers to was the formation of the proto-confederation in 1291 and the subsequent battles against the House of Habsburg. Though generally referred to as “the Austrians”, the Habsburgs actually stem from the small town of Brugg, a short distance east of Zurich, where the Habichtsburg – hawk’s castle – still stands. To most of the world, the only link the war of liberation is William Tell, himself a mythical character who much to Goethe’s chagrin was brought to universal attention by his rival Friedrich Schiller and of course subsequently by Gioachino Rossini. Puppa-dum, puppa dum, puppa dum dum dum….

The country is known for its political stability which emanates not only from it hanging onto some truly arcane elements of direct democracy such as referenda being held on any change to the constitution and laws being put to the people through voter initiatives bearing a predetermined but entirely achievable number of signatures, but also from there not being an elected government. Well, sort of but not quite. There only seven offices of state with equivalent ministries. They are Interior, Exterior, Justice, Defence, Energy Transport and Environment, Economic Affairs , and of course Finance. Two houses of parliament, very much like the US House of Representatives and the Senate, are elected which in turn nominate the heads of the seven departments according to an unwritten rule which sees two each occupied by candidates from the three largest parties and one from a fourth parliamentary grouping.

Thus, Switzerland has no government and no opposition. It has seven chief administrators, one of whom on a rotational basis acts for one year at a time as Federal President. This is consensus politics on a scale which is otherwise as good as unknown. Consensus goes all the way down to the popular referendum level where it is all too common for the voters to casually approve tax increases while rejecting the improvement of benefits. They vote as taxpayers as well as recipients and with few exceptions appear as responsible citizens. Boring but stable.

The trains are clean and run on time. The buses too. The system of secondary education is still regarded as just about the best that any young person can get. Nobody has better or higher spec cars. Other than in the highest and most remote of alpine valleys, true poverty is as good as unknown. There is no centrally managed – or mismanaged – National Health Service.. Hospitals are maintained on a canton by canton or municipal level and are supported by mandatory private health insurance. Other than two federally maintained technical universities, tertiary education is a local matter. Taxation is also a local and not a central government affair although state pension contributions and distributions are federally organised. Wages are the highest in Europe in both nominal and purchasing power parity. Amongst the industrialised nations of Europe, it has the lowest level of personal tax.  The whole country oozes efficiency.

With its banking secrecy and its political stability Switzerland has done well. But that alone cannot explain why the persistent strength of its currency, the franc, has not destroyed its economy. Between 2000 and 2010 alone the dollar deflated from CHF 1.80 to CHF 0.80 – it is currently around CHF 0.95 – and yet the country which is hugely export dependent thrives.  Much, it must be said, is down to what is and fundamentally remains a bit of an old fashioned society and what Max Weber described as the Chrisitan Ethic where hard work and frugality are admired and respected. It has been said, albeit highly generalised, that the Swiss are very, very rich peasants but that they remain peasants, nevertheless. They wear their Patek Philippe watches and Hermes bags with humility and bling is disdained. It is a country where the ultimate insult is to stand accused of showing off like a Russian.  

Of a population of just shy of 9 million, 37% report a migratory background of whom a quarter hold foreign citizenship. Since World War II, immigrants have supplied much of the manual labour required. First they came from Italy. Then from Spain and Portugal. Then from Greece and Turkey. Now from anywhere. In the early days it was the men only and families were not allowed to join them. Those were the rules and they came, nevertheless. Currently Switzerland is being urged to issue an apology for inhumane behaviour. In the 1950s and 1960s it was not regarded as inhumane and at the time there was the option to object by not coming. Case closed. I well remember the large wooden barracks occupied by dozens of Southern Italian construction workers as well as the overfilled trains and overloaded cars heading south across the Alps at Easter and at Christmas.

The Swiss are pleased with themselves. The Swiss German word is “süffisant”. Though etymologically derived from the French “suffisant” or sufficient, it expresses the emotion of a very Swiss benign contempt for others, the overwhelming majority of whom are only foreigners and therefore by definition less well off. And in a Swiss kind of way that confirms to them the superiority of their way of doing things. That said, in a Swiss context there is no more than the width of a cigarette paper that differentiates standard of living from quality of life. As a resident Welshman said to me some 50 years ago “Switzerland is a fascist police state…but it works”.

Why do we hate the Swiss? We hate them because they have everything that we all want and, damn them, they have made it all look so very easy. If the price to pay is being boring and “süffisant”, as far as the Swiss are concerned, it appears to be worth it. And just to underline that, it has a well below average suicide rate for Europe. Yes, we cannot help but hate them. And of course they and not we had Roger Federer. But then again, they also had Sepp Blatter.

I read over the weekend that Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party and of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition wishes, once in government, to immediately abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected second chamber. He might care to reflect on the fact that Switzerland, the politically most stable and most prosperous country in Europe, doesn’t even sport an elected government. Food for thought, don’t you agree?

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