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Reflections from a small land

August 16, 2018

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Summer holidays are always a good time for reflection. This year we’ve been to Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland, in the heart of the Alps. JRR Tolkien came there in 1911 and this narrow mountain girt valley with its 72 waterfalls it is thought to provide the inspiration for Rivendell, the home of the Elves in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
Our trip has prompted a number of thoughts both about Switzerland and its place in the modern world and about some wider issues.

This was my first extended visit to Switzerland although I have made a few shorter visits in the past. In some ways it was quite familiar. I remember Switzerland being quite in vogue in my childhood with the, then novel, excitements of eating “Swiss style breakfast” cereals and watching Swiss Family Robinson on the television. As ever there is more to Switzerland than that and now, in the light of Brexit, it strikes me there is some considerable value in taking an interest in its affairs as country which sits, in the heart of Europe, but is not a member of the EU.

Reinforced by its geography this not one country but many. This is a federal country in the full sense of the word, “Confoederatio Helvetica” being the Latin name which is reflected in the “CH” stickers on Swiss cars. There are four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh and, under the Swiss constitution, the federal Government is an explicit sharing of sovereignty by the 26 cantons rather than a top down imposition of national authority.

National Government is shared through a seven-person National Council, elected for a four-year term, across the political spectrum and the figure of the State President, whom we saw give his traditional address on 1st August, Swiss National Day, rather like the Queen on Christmas Day, is elected by other members of the Council on a one-year basis. The President is primus inter pares with other members of the Council and has no additional power. Swiss politics seems to eschew any focus on personality, a health antidote to the dramas playing out in the Uk while we were away.

All across Switzerland the emblems of cantons and local communities (Gemeinde) were as prominent as that of Switzerland. Managing diversity of interest and working through consensus, not diktat, seems to be hard wired into the Swiss political psyche. The Swiss tradition of direct democracy also has major influence on the shape of Swiss politics.

The other thing which distinguishes public affairs in Switzerland is the country’s deep-seated commitment to neutrality. It has not been at war internationally since 1815 and the principle of neutrality still is at the heart of Swiss foreign policy. As was clear from some of the debate we saw in the Swiss media, that principle comes in two forms, an open and outward looking form which looks for the country playing an active role in international affairs, for instance by taking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, or one which envisages neutrality being more insular and isolationist in its character.

Both these issues, how we order the relationships within the different parts of the UK and what are the fundamental principles which drive our future relationship with the rest of the world seem to be absolutely central to how we work through the dilemmas around Brexit. It was also salutary to note, that despite its strong sense of independence and the reluctance of the Swiss public to contemplate joining the EU, how central the relationship with the EU is in defining Switzerland’s economic and regulatory policies.

Time in the mountains promoted two other reflections. We enjoyed, like the rest of Europe, two weeks of generally excellent weather but the high temperatures also reminded me of the significance of global warming. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in the shrinking of the Alpine glaciers. There is a lot to worry about in the world at present, but it feels to me also a real risk that, amidst other issues, we fail to take seriously enough the biggest threat to our world. The sight of the mountain rivers in flood with the melted ice of the glaciers was a timely reminder of this issue.

My final reflection was a more serene one. The landscape we were staying and walking in was phenomenally beautiful, with wonderful vistas of some of the most significant Alpine mountains such as the Eiger and the Jungfrau. One of the reasons I have always loved the mountains is the way in which both in scale and timelessness they dwarf our human ambitions and anxieties. Close to where we staying were the spectacular Staumbach falls. At the bottom of the falls there was an inscription of some verses of a poem by Goethe who had visited the valley at the end of the 18th century. They read:

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“The souls men, you are like the water, the fate of men, you are like the wind”

Perspective is very important in life. These words and the sensational beauty of the place offered a sobering perspective for my own petty concerns and anxieties which I will try to take with me as I return to the wear and tear of daily life.

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