There is a lot to be admired about Switzerland. The landscape, for one. The Alps are generally breathtaking and, as a half-Austrian, they occupy a very special place in my soul. I was lucky enough to spend a month in the Austrian Alps recently and it was the perfect antidote to life in London. You feel clean up there in a way you never can in London’s filthy air and it was wonderful to get so far away from the politics of austerity and the insane rental market currently tearing my home city apart at the seams. Indeed, up in the mountains it’s very easy to feel apart from everything, especially politics. The mountains shield you, protect you, cut you off from the outside world and give you the ultimately false sense that you don’t depend on or need anyone or anywhere else.
This geography has profoundly shaped Switzerland’s politics. Their system of direct democracy is a fascinating model of ground-up participation – no major changes can be made without the will of the populace. The electorate can veto laws. All it takes is a significant proportion of the electorate, and the Swiss can not only veto proposed laws – by triggering a referendum – but also propose new ones. If a law is passed in Switzerland, we can be reasonably sure that a lot of their people are behind it. This populace is, thanks to Switzerland’s approach to self-defence, also armed and trained – were it ever invaded Switzerland’s army would be its people. It’s hard to think of a better defensive set-up than that.
A country that cannot invade other countries, that can defend itself without a standing army and which can’t be governed without the continual consent of its people is one that is providing a powerful potential model , a model that many preach in their rhetoric but utterly fail to live up to in reality. This is particularly stark from the perspective of the UK experience of democracy, in which there is virtually no participation and very little consent required beyond the five yearly farce of first past the post. Worse, could anyone even delude themselves that our armed forces are for defence? We’re not even the playground bullies of international relations – we’re the principal bully’s ego masseur.
But this isolationism and self-reliance has a profound down-side. A great deal of Switzerland’s wealth is predicated on their famous banking system. Orson Welles’ famous delivery in The Third Man runs:
“Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, 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 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Which gives the impression of an innocent, untroubled nation, lacking creativity due to a lack of hardship. It’s a great line and a great moment but grates for its promotion of the idea of Switzerland as a harmless country, an image that I feel it tries very hard to project with its ostensible neutrality. This neutrality is, however, a pernicious myth. Switzerland’s policy of neutrality encompasses a false attitude of neutrality towards money, in that they will take anyone’s, no questions asked. The nation’s celebrated wealth is built in no small part on blood, horror, death and the exploitation of countless humans around the world.
That mountainous geography comes into play again here. It’s easy to pretend that there’s no world beyond your borders when those borders are marked by massive fucking piles of rock. It’s not that the rest of the world ceases to exist, it’s that the lack of visibility of the rest of the world makes it easy to pretend that it doesn’t exist – like a small child playing peekaboo.
While banning the building of minarets with the support of its oh-so-democratic political system Switzerland will also field one of the most multi-ethnic teams in the tournament. Look at their squad. The prevalence of Albanian and southern Slavic surnames is indicative of the extent to which Swiss football has benefited from immigration from the Balkans, and captain Gökhan Inler should serve as a reminder that Turks have also played a significant part over the last twenty or so years (English fans will remember Kubilay Türkyilmaz’s equaliser at Wembley in the opening game of Euro ’96, for example). Like its larger neighbours France and Germany, but to an even greater degree, the strength of the Swiss national team owes much to the eligibility game. Yet this is a nation in which the largest party in the federal assembly is the right-wing, populist Swiss People’s Party, a blueprint for the likes of UKIP. The self-proclaimed ‘party of the middle class’ have been part of the Europe-wide campaign to refit racism and xenophobia as acceptable, an act of collective, continent-spanning amnesia which seems to become more pervasive every week.
The issue here, then, is one of cognitive dissonance. There is surely a Venn diagram which shows where Swiss people who vote for the SPP and Swiss people who cheer on the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka intersect, cheering immigration while simultaneously rejecting it and ascribing to it everything that is supposedly wrong with their system. The attitude may be ‘fuck outsiders, we don’t need or want them’ but the reality is, in fact: ‘we want and need your money and we don’t care who we fuck over to get it’ – it’s a direct democracy for Switzerland but pure gangsterism to anyone else. An irony writ large when Switzerland play.
Love Switzerland for a system that the whole world could run on, more or less in peace, but hold Switzerland to account for having created that system, for themselves, from the sweat, tears and blood of the others they choose not to see. And in holding Switzerland to account, hold ourselves to account too, because Tate and Lyle didn’t make sugar out of local beets and Bayer didn’t make gas out of air.
Posted by Seb Crankshaw