During Britain’s EU referendum campaign, many countries were touted as ones Britain should emulate in a post-Brexit world: Norway, Albania, Canada, Australia and many others were considered as viable alternatives to Britain’s hitherto ‘inside the club’ stance towards the European Union. Perhaps none were mentioned more than Switzerland: at the heart of Europe but outside the EU, with a relatively strong economy built on finance and skilled manufacturing, the mountainous nation supposedly offered a route that Britain could emulate to reach peace and prosperity outside of the EU. Britain’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, is clearly a fan of the country: she recently holidayed in Switzerland with her husband, Phillip.
So, what can the PM, and Britain as a whole, learn from Switzerland? Let’s find out.
A Canton-do Attitude
One area where Switzerland could hold some lessons for Britain (particularly with Scottish independence once again rearing its head) is its attitudes to devolution. Switzerland is divided into administrative and political districts called cantons — every Swiss citizen is a member of a canton, whether it’s the largely urban Bern canton or the more rural cantons like Valais. Below these cantons there are local councils — large policy areas like health and education (and even tax collection) are controlled at either canton or local levels, not the national level. Compare that to Britain, where devolution is anything but uniform: Scotland, Wales and North Ireland have their own governments that control areas like health and education, but most of England’s population have such policy issues handled by the British government. This has become even more confused with the establishment of combined regional authorities in English cities like Manchester and Sheffield, which again take some policy areas from the British government while other areas of England have them controlled at Westminster.
Now, there are some reasons why a more flexible form of devolution could be good for Britain. However, making sure that health, social care and education are local priorities rather than national ones could have a lot of benefits — local councils and regional authorities know their areas better than the national government, and devolving powers like these could allow vast improvements in these areas.
Welcome to Neverendum Land
Ah, referendums. Don’t ya just love ‘em? Getting lots of people to vote on a subject they have next to no knowledge of, informed by lying campaigns that provoke fear and anger rather than reasoned debate. We’re still waiting on that £350 million boost for the NHS we’ve been promised and we’ll keep looking out for the 70 million Turkish citizens staring longingly across the English Channel from Calais after their non-existent attempt to come to Britain in their droves was thwarted by the EU referendum vote.
As you can probably sense, we’re not great fans of direct democracy — far better to involve as many people as possible in our system of representative democracy than getting people to vote on issues they don’t know anything about. Having said that, we quite admire the Swiss obsession with referendums.
Switzerland has referendums on just about everything. If the government wants to change the constitution, there’s a referendum. If the Swiss Parliament passes a law that people don’t like, they can collect signatures and force a referendum on the issue. If a Swiss citizen wants Parliament to pass a law on a particular issue, they again can collect signatures and force a referendum. And that’s just at the national level — there are canton-level referendums too. Though miles away from the sea, the Swiss people are swimming in referendums.
However, whereas British referendums in recent years have been indulgences in ignorance, the regularity of Swiss referendums may cause citizens to be more informed on the issues they are voting for.
An even more important aspect of Swiss referendums compared to their British counterparts is that they are more democratic. One thing that people tend to forget is that the protection of minorities is an important part of democracy. Think about it — imagine if all the young people wanted to throw all the old people out of the country, and there was a referendum to do so; if the majority of people in the country were young, then the old wouldn’t have their voices heard on the issue and duly get thrown out. That’s undemocratic, because some people’s voices are excluded. The protection of such minorities is enshrined in great democratic works like the U.S. constitution, and is taken into account in the Swiss attitude to referendums: for a referendum vote to succeed, it must not only win the votes of over 50% of the population, but also 50% of the cantons, ensuring that the linguistic, religious and geographical minorities in the more remote areas have their voices heard. This can often mean that it takes a long time for social progress to be made (women only got the vote in Switzerland in 1971) but it does at least protect minorities.
Compare this to Britain’s referendums in recent years, where just gaining a simple majority was enough to win. This is not democracy. This is known as majoritarianism, ‘the tyranny of the majority’, or mob rule. A referendum that would adequately protect minorities in Britain would ensure that a decision only passed if it was approved not only by the majority of people, but also the majority of regions in the UK. The decision to leave the EU, in which both Scotland and Northern Ireland (as well as London and several other city regions) voted against, would not have passed under such rules. When it comes to referendums, future British governments need to take note of the Swiss example.
Don’t Bank On It
Switzerland’s economy is remarkably like Britain’s: both no longer export many raw materials; they both are largely dependent on their banking sectors; and they also have strong-performing companies in skilled industries like pharmaceuticals. Moreover, Switzerland’s banking and pharmaceutical industries have thrived, despite the fact that Switzerland isn’t in the EU. Could this show a way for Britain to be economically successful post-Brexit?
Well, yes, but Leave voters aren’t gonna like it. Due to several bilateral agreements with the EU, Switzerland has to comply with the vast majority of EU laws. In return, it receives full access to the single market, which allow it to easily export its products and gives its banks access to the other financial areas. The best way to maintain Britain’s economy in the face of Brexit (other than reversing the result of the referendum) would be to go with Switzerland’s option, in which it becomes basically a member without having a say on the EU’s laws.
Not all Cheese and Chocolate
The similarities between Switzerland’s economy and that of a possible future Britain are echoed in the debates over immigration. But if there’s one country that you would want to emulate when it comes to the immigration and integration debate, it certainly isn’t Switzerland.
Switzerland has had its fair share of immigrants over the past twenty years (most of whom come from EU member states or the former Yugoslavia), but a disproportionally large amount of racism and xenophobia directed at the new arrivals too. In 2007, the openly xenophobic SVP became the largest party after that year’s elections, winning 30% of the vote and using racist posters to do so. Even more recently, in 2014 the Swiss voted in a referendum to limit free movement of people from the rest of Europe — the largest anti-immigration vote in Europe since the founding of the EU. Until Brexit came along, that is.
And this anti-foreigner sentiment goes right to the heart of Swiss politics and Swiss culture. Switzerland is built upon social cohesion and community — despite its linguistic and religious differences, the combination of its strong economy, direct democracy and community-controlled health and education systems creates a sense of togetherness perhaps unlike any other country in Europe. But the negative effect (or perhaps an unspoken cause) of this sense of community is an exclusion of outsiders. For one, it’s extremely difficult to become a Swiss citizen: in order to become a Swiss citizen, you have to have lived in the country for 12 years; in Britain it is only five, which is similar to other European nations. Equally, unlike in other countries people who are born in Switzerland do not automatically become Swiss citizens: second-generation citizens are known as Secondos; there are around 350,000 Secondos who have lived their whole lives in Switzerland but are not Swiss citizens. As Diccon Bewes notes in his book ‘Swiss Watching’, “Swiss nationality is considered a privilege, not a right,” and it’s harrowing to think that these attitudes could be transplanted from the landlocked island in the middle of the EU to our own island.
So, there you have it — while Switzerland has some constitutional quirks that Britain might want to emulate, it largely just makes the choice clearer of May’s government: does immigration trump the economy, or the other way round? Switzerland’s strong economy shows it is possible to survive outside of the EU — but only by maintaining free market access which means, yes, more immigration. Perhaps the most important lesson is how not to conduct the immigration debate: rather than excluding outsiders, a case needs to be put to the British people for the positive impact immigrants have. Otherwise we could, like Switzerland, have even more damaging votes in the future.
Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.