Monday, March 31, 2008
A Model Democracy
This piece of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website
It's a country where both of its leading supermarkets are cooperatives inspired by leftwing philosophy. The state-owned postal service runs the buses, which connect even the most remote village- in this country public transport is still run as a public service. It hasn't been involved in a war for almost 200 years and is easily the most democratic country in Europe - with the regular use of referendums. It has taken a strong line on climate change: in the most recent general election the Greens polled almost 10%. And its unofficial national motto is "One for all, all for one". Yet, the country in question is one that progressives often sneer at- and label reactionary.
I'm talking of Switzerland, which, though it lies at the heart of Europe, is one of continent's countries about which there is most ignorance.
The first myth about Switzerland is that it operates an ultra-capitalist, dogmatically free-market economic system. Although much of the economy is in private hands, if there is a conflict of interest in Switzerland between community and capital, community always comes first. Agriculture is highly protected - receiving twice the amount of subsidy than the EU average. Swiss Federal Railways in still in public ownership. Most shops close on Saturday afternoons and all day on Sunday. In Switzerland, unlike Britain, there are still areas where commerce is not allowed to go.
A second myth is that Switzerland is a boringly bourgeois and ultra-sanitised place where no self-respecting radical would feel at home. What surprises many who visit for the first time is the country's gritty and decidedly retro feel. Switzerland is dated - but in the best possible way. You can still smoke in wonderfully atmospheric railway station restaurant/cafes (I can heartily recommend the one at Thun) - and imagine it's still 1968. For someone coming from Britain, Swiss streets have a refreshingly un-globalised look. Away from the biggest cities, big international fast food and coffee shop chains, which have made British high streets such bland, uniform places, are conspicuous by their absence. Swiss cities still have a bohemian feel: there is a thriving cultural and artistic scene.
Another myth about Switzerland is that its people are narrow-minded xenophobes. The racist anti-immigration election poster of the Swiss People's party (SVP), which showed three white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag, quite rightly led to condemnation from around the world. But less well publicised were the protests the poster sparked in Switzerland and the gains made in last year's election by the unequivocally anti-racist Green party.
Switzerland's model of direct democracy is one the left should study extremely closely. Swiss citizens may challenge a law that has been passed by parliament if they can gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days. In addition, citizens can put a constitutional amendment to a national vote, provided they get 100,000 voters to sign the proposed amendment within 18 months. Binding referendums also take place at cantonal and local level. It's no coincidence that George Lansbury, the most socialist of all British Labour party leaders, spoke favourably of the Swiss model-and called for a similar system to be introduced in Britain.
Switzerland's commitment to democracy runs deep and explains the reluctance to hand over decision-making power to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. By maintaining its independence, Switzerland is able to follow its own path, and not be dictated to by those who act as if they rule the world. Despite warnings from the US embassy in Bern, Switzerland's energy trading company EGL earlier this month signed a 25-year-old natural gas contract with the state-owned National Iranian Gas Export Company. The Swiss president and foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, defended the deal, saying, "Switzerland is an independent country that has its own strategic interests to defend". If only other European nations could show such spirit when dealing with US bullying.
Forget the jibes about cuckoo clocks and the gnomes of Zurich: Switzerland has a lot more going for it from a progressive viewpoint than many on the left realise.