Beyond the cuckoo-clock

“In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”  Orson Welles (Harry Lime) in ‘The Third Man’.

I think this is going to be difficult. I am going to try to pick out a few impressions I have gained from my times in Switzerland, while attempting to present an accurate and reasonably impartial account. I’m pretty sure Orson Welles was wrong on two counts: Swiss history is rather more turbulent than that, as might be expected from a small, landlocked nation at the cross-roads of Europe – and I think it has produced rather more than a twee clock (which in any case is Bavarian…)

I’m not going to pretend that the following is scientific; it is simply the residue of my personal effort to understand another nation over a period of a couple of decades. One never even fully knows at what ‘position’ one enters that society: as a guest of grammar school teachers, some of whom are also university academics – I suspect it is different from that of the average teacher in the U.K. But I have ranged quite widely, from inside views of some of the international organisations that have settled in Switzerland, to the humdrum back-streets of the cities; I have taken the trams and post-buses and local trains; eaten at swanky lakeside restaurants on Lake Geneva – and mountain bothies near the snow-line. I have been in numerous people’s homes, a guest at parties, have soaked with the locals in tourist-unknown thermal baths, and celebrated the National Day in both large towns and small villages well off the tourist track; I have loitered in out-of-town commercial centres and pavement cafes long enough to watch what people are doing and how the place seems to work…

There is much else that I could mention, but I have tried to highlight aspects of the country that might be of significance from an educational point of view, in the widest sense of ‘what it’s all for’. These are the things that seem to contribute to the higher quality of life that I admire about the country; it’s noticeable that they are not all concerned with the country’s renowned material wealth.

I have tried to remain reasonably objective, and leave the reader to form what conclusions they will.

1. Principle Number One: Switzerland as a single entity doesn’t exist: as a federation, much power is devolved to canton (province) level, this even extending to income-tax rates.  This does however create some strong internal tensions, for example between cantons with more and less favourable tax regimes. There is no national newspaper or T.V station – nor even a single national educational system, that also being locally determined. This makes it difficult to generalise about the country – the more so the better you know it.

2. Switzerland remains a locally-minded society. Despite the global success of its companies and the high-profile branding of its national identity, many Swiss people seem firmly attached to their region of birth. This is reinforced by the language differences – not only between French, German and Italian, but between the many dialects. People are more likely to attend local universities and live in the same canton all their lives than is the equivalent experience in Britain. Tax is even paid directly at the canton and commune (parish) scale, which in turn entitles residents to a share in local services and produce, and more generally, means that residents retain a much greater control of their own communal affairs than is the case in the U.K., where local government has been progressively eroded. A disadvantage of this can be a degree of sometimes quite indignant parochialism, as seen in the recent immigration debate.

3. This localism seems to have preserved a much greater sense of social cohesion than in our increasingly atomised society in the U.K., despite the same global and technological forces being at work. Walking round even a relatively large city like Basel, it is noticeable how many people my friend is able to point out with whom he has some social, cultural or professional connection. There seems a much stronger sense of civic pride and social obligation; social relationships seem to be taken more seriously and are less transient than in the U.K. These bonds seem deep, and are more likely to involve arranged social events such as shared trips, meals and other functions. It can all appear somewhat formal, but that doesn’t seem to diminish the sincerity. To British eyes, the Swiss are resolutely understated, and unlikely to make demonstrative shows of friendship, but once made, one can generally be certain of the sincerity.

There are clearly very great levels of wealth in Switzerland, most notably around Zurich – but for a strongly-capitalist nation, the everyday Swiss are surprisingly egalitarian. The divide between the rich and rest seems narrower than in the U.K., though I suppose it may just be more discrete. Certainly, there seems to be less evidence of public figures buying themselves exclusivity, while on the other hand, visiting the home of some recent Serbian immigrants, I noted the living conditions (if representative) while somewhat dated, were far from the deprivation still found in parts of British cities – and were certainly still well-planned and built.

4. Public life in general seems to be in much better health than in the U.K. The referendum structure leads to more participation in decision-making, with documents being published several times years detailing the issues for forthcoming votes. There seems to be a noticeably higher level of cultural activity – including high culture – in which people participate. One sees posters everywhere; I suspect it is partly the devolved nature of the country that ensures that high-quality art and music are available in more than just a few large cities. Local activities widely seem to be of a high standard. Despite its modernity, Switzerland also retains a respect for the country’s traditions, such as the various seasonal fairs and the Fasnacht carnivals of February, which retain an almost medieval system of lodges, the cultural and social activities of which enlist trans-generational loyalty on an ongoing basis. Traditional academic disciplines and achievement seem to retain a respect and rigour not widely seen in the U.K. – but there is also an unselfconscious acceptance that trade is important too: vocational training is not seen as second-class.


Not quite your average Swiss… (Basler Fasnacht)

5. The infrastructure works. The rail system is legendary, of course – but the road network is equally comprehensive, high quality, and designed to maximise efficiency (greater use of flyovers etc.). Consequently, the driving can be surprisingly ‘unrestrained’… Just as important is the planning that goes into making the system work for the convenience of the whole population, not just an elite that is able to pay for exclusive access. It seems clear from the way that new projects are planned and promoted – often at visionary scale – that they are seen as the entitlement of the whole population. There is no stigma attached to public transport – one sees people of all sorts using the trams and buses (all of which are scrupulously clean and punctual, if not cheap) and car use is significantly lower, at least in larger centres, than it is in the U.K.

Also noticeable is the large amount of manufacturing that still goes on – not often heavy industry, mostly light manufacturing of high-quality, high-precision goods. There are many modern, clean and efficient business units in most urban areas, and not infrequently in rural ones too.

There is more provision for plurality – for example by the creation of a wide network of off-road cycle paths, and the universal signposting of national footpaths: it is not assumed that everybody wants to function in the same way as an increasingly herd-like British mentality seems to do. The corollary of this civic vision is a less paternalistic tone than sometimes occurs in Britain: it seems very clear that the rights of the autonomous citizen also extend to a high degree of responsibility and self reliance.

The sense of equalising opportunity extends nation-wide: unlike in the U.K., greater investment seems to go into remote areas (of which there are many) in recognition of their greater handicaps. The quality of works in even the remotest mountain communities is frequently no less than excellent by U.K. standards. (In Britain, the contrast in provision in particular between London and the further regions is reaching the levels of a scandal – recent figures suggest annual per capita public investment in London of over £2700 – and of just £5 in the North-East). This does not mean that everything is up-to-date; when the Swiss build from new they build ultra-modern – but because quality tends to be so high, things last, and it is not unusual to find artefacts and facilities many decades old: things tend not to be replaced until they wear out, not just for the sake of conspicuous fashionability. Switzerland retains much medieval architecture (there was almost no destruction in WWII) and the vast majority of it seems to be extremely well maintained.

6. The environment in the widest sense, is very important. This extends from the high quality of residential properties and neighbourhoods, through the generally well-maintained urban fabric to an awareness of green issues. While there has been a degree of coercion to achieve it (for example, fines for people who fail to recycle waste) Switzerland now leads Europe in its recycling rate. The general awareness of green issues is everywhere, in the construction of new buildings and transport through to the widespread provision of recycling points (including in schools), to the assiduity with which people turn off lights when they leave rooms. It is perhaps not surprising given the enviable nature of their scenery, that the Swiss are a far more physically active nation than the British. At weekends and holidays, the countryside teems with walkers, cyclists and others; national transport is set up for example to allow the easy carriage of bicycles and skis around the country. The school calendars are arranged to allow families skiing holidays – and indeed participation in the annual carnivals in places where they happen.

7. Ruskin said of the Swiss, “They were…neither heroic nor base, but were true-hearted men…proud yet not allowing their pride to prick them into unwary or unworthy quarrel. You will find among them…only an undeceivable common sense…they use no phrase of friendship but they do not fail you at your need.” I think some of that still rings true.

There is very little showing-off in Switzerland – while quality is rated, showiness tends not to be. Wealth is not flaunted – perhaps because much of it is not new money; with no aristocracy to claw back from, the nation’s inheritance laws have ensured that a relatively high degree of wealth has been passed down the generations – which of course is also an incentive to be economically productive and efficient oneself.  One group of our guests was bemused by school uniforms; when asked what they were for, a quick answer seemed to be to stop the pupils having a fashion competition. The response was, “Why would they want to do that?” To British eyes, Switzerland tends to be a model of restraint; to the Swiss, I think it’s just natural.

There is consequently less hype than in the U.K. Quality is a given, but people just seem to get on with things rather than having to trumpet them to all and sundry. There is little talk of ‘world-class’ this or that, just a quiet intention to makes things work, and work well. While luxury clearly exists, greater Swiss life is actually quite functional, in a modernist sense (after all, the father of modernism, Le Corbusier was Swiss). Swiss trains, for example, don’t provide luxury – but everywhere you look things are of understated high quality. The presumption is that things will work – and that extends to the entitlements and expectations on individuals. There seems to be a much greater degree of individual trust in the workplace, an assumption that people will do the right thing unless proven otherwise – and if that should happen, it will be dealt with discretely, without any shows of temper. But there also seems to be a greater degree sense of equality: far more is done through negotiation than imposition; consensus seems important.

One downside of this can sometimes be impatience when things don’t come up to scratch; I suppose it isn’t surprising that perpetual exposure to high standards accustoms people to them.

8. The social contract is different. Rules exist that to British eyes seem quite draconian, such as evening or weekend restrictions on washing cars or laundry; the law requiring all cars to have winter tyres is perhaps just common sense. Registration plates attach to the owner, not the vehicle – which makes tracing people who drive badly a distinct possibility…The clear rule is that the individual should forgo some liberty for the sake of communal harmony; it seems to be accepted. A major contrast with the U.K. is the requirement for men to do annual military service.

On the other hand, the state somehow seems to retain a greater benevolence towards its citizens; there seems to be an implicit sense that it serves the nation as a whole, rather than social cliques or vested interest groups – or indeed the reverse, that the citizens serve the state. There are innumerable examples where small corporate things are done to make life easier for people at large (such as the range and flexibility of travel concession cards and the early introduction of not only ‘quiet’ but also family coaches on trains).One is repeatedly left with the impression that Swiss people are somehow more empowered as individuals than the British.  It’s hard to pin down, and I suspect it’s second-nature to them. I see it in the deep assumptions people seem to be making as they go about their everyday lives; it’s seen in the way the national fabric works to make daily life as convenient, efficient and seamless as possible. There generally seems to be a much greater presumption in favour of the sovereignty of the private individual than in the U.K. Yet conversely, egos are generally restrained; even the federal presidency operates on an annual rotation between members of the government…

I have attempted to avoid the more esoteric foibles of Swiss culture; my main aim is to look at ways in which everyday life – from practicalities to attitudes – inform a society that is more balanced than the British, that retains a healthier balance between economic priorities and social cohesion, that still has a sense of vision, as seen in its environmental stance and its cultural and intellectual richness. It seems more truly classless than Britain – though it needs to be admitted that this coherence comes at the price of sometimes-strident disapproval of ‘outsiders’; immigration is an issue that the Swiss are still struggling with – but with non-Swiss making up 20% of the population, maybe that is a little understandable?

The Switzerland I admire is not the Heidi-and-chocolate-box country of stereotypes, but a very modern, functioning nation. I think one thing I have realised in my sustained relationship with it (and my travels elsewhere), is just how closely the lives, opportunities  and outlooks of individual people are influenced by – and govern – the social structures of the whole; I believe the same applies, perhaps rather less benignly, in the case of my own country.

I hope I have avoided hagiography, but have now set the scene to look more closely at the Swiss education system in a future post.

Swiss flag


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