On 1 August 1291, so the story goes, representatives of the three Swiss cantons, Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden, swore an oath at Rütli on the shores of the Vierwaldstättersee , or Lake Lucerne.
They promised that the three cantons would help each other and that they would not accept judgement by anyone who did not live among them. The document is known as the Bundesbrief (Federal Charter). Even today, Swiss call themselves Eidgenossen, those who have taken the oath. As the number of cantons in the confederation grew over the centuries , that explicit statement of independence remained a cornerstone of the nation.
Only between 1798 and 1802 did Napoleon temporarily interrupt this happy state of affairs. Since 1815, Swiss perpetual neutrality has been another characteristic. That does not mean a withdrawal from the world, but engagement with it in such a way that the Swiss are eminently qualified to mediate in international disputes.
It is a testimony to the Swiss character that Switzerland can exist at all, with four language communities (including numerous Swiss German dialect communities), two Christian denominations, a dozen or so principal political parties, 26 sovereign cantons and half-cantons, and an immigrant community, all of which can fairly be described as l’exception suisse.
The Swiss do it by organising themselves from bottom to top, rather than the other way round. Swiss are first members of their Gemeinde. The nearest British equivalent is the parish, but it’s rather more than that. All Swiss have a Heimatsort, the place where they were born, or with which they have strong family or personal ties. Like the concept of home for many people, it’s where they have to take you in when you have to go there.
Above the Gemeinde comes the canton. In the political hierarchy, it’s like a British county, but, again, it’s much more than that. Cantons were once independent sovereign states, and in many ways they still are. They have their own governments, their own flags and their own tax arrangements. They pass to the federal government only those matters, principally foreign affairs and defence, that are of national importance. The Swiss parliament building in the capital, Bern, avoids language favouritism by resorting to Latin. Engraved on its front are the words:
CURIA CONFOEDERATIONIS HELVETICAE
The effect of this hierarchy is to push responsibility down to the lowest administrative level, even to individuals. Make too much noise or fail to put your geraniums out at your peril. You will usually see a broom outside most houses, ready for use. I once boarded a small cable car in Kandersteg in the Bernese Oberland. When he had set us on our way, the lift operator, instead of sitting down with the equivalent of a cup of tea and The Sun, took his broom and swept the surrounding area.
All this means it is a very pleasant place to live. There’s a price to pay for it, of course, not only in money terms. There always is. It is a highly regulated and self-regulated country. In the capital, Bern, do not, under any circumstances, try to dodge your tram fare. You will incur the wrath of the brigade of ladies of a certain age in hats who seem to run the place. I once came up against one of these formidable chatelaines when I made an unwise manoeuvre in my car. Sure enough, there was, quite rightly, a loud tap on my windscreen and a look of disapproval that made me truly contrite. Still, all a small price to pay, I reckon.
The Swiss seem to have got things right in so many areas, typically transport. The Swiss like their cars, but they have a world-class public transport system. You used to be able to buy a national timetable which allows you to plan a journey to the minute and with 100% reliability from Geneva in the west to Scuol in the east, taking in as many places on the way as you wish, traveling by train, bus, boat and mountain railway. The information is now available online. I have a particular affection for the Postauto, the yellow post buses, with their distinctive horns, which reach the remotest parts of the country.
The Swiss have traditionally had a bad press abroad. They’re often seen as remote and humourless, but that has not been my experience. Sure, they respect other people’s privacy, but what’s wrong with that? As for humour, I once had to organise a visit to the UK by a team of Swiss police dog handlers. Their leader told me that only he spoke English. The rest, he said, would bark. Not the world’s greatest joke, perhaps, but not bad for a Swiss policeman. The Swiss have this in common with the British that they can laugh at themselves. I have a book in Swiss German called ‘Dr Bärner Witz’, which largely features Bernese telling disparaging jokes about citizens of other cantons. I can also recommend the promotional video ‘Swiss Mountain Cleaners’, which satirises the Swiss reputation for cleanliness.
In sum, Switzerland is a country of paradoxes. In the centre of Europe, but not a member of the EU. Prosperous, but with no natural resources (except snow). Capitalist, but exceptionally democratic. Parochial, but international. Modern, but with a sense of its history. It is a model for Europe and the wider world in many ways.
For some photos, see Gallery.
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