Interview / Lifestyle

“Sweden and Switzerland Have Conformity in Common”: Diccon Bewes in Conversation

Swiss and Swedish, like Dutch and Danish, are often confused. But both countries have much in common, beyond winter sports, neutrality and good tennis players. Author DICCON BEWES has lived in Switzerland for fifteen years, and is in a good position to tell us more…

Diccon, first of all, have you ever been to Sweden?

I have been to Stockholm, but I faint at the prices… so I’ve never been back!

But Switzerland is also very expensive…

Yes, definitely. I went to Sweden before I moved to Switzerland, so I wasn’t prepared for the high prices in the way that I am now. I think in the infamous ‘Big Mac’ index, Switzerland is first and Sweden is either second or third. They are comparable in terms of eye-watering prices for everyday items.

In Sweden, that high cost of living is compensated for by high pay and a welfare state. Switzerland has high pay, but is the welfare state also strong?

Yes it is actually. I think that’s one of the things people don’t realise about Switzerland, because it’s not famous for being a social democratic, liberal democracy… it’s quite conservative. But the welfare state is relatively generous when it comes to unemployment benefit, single child benefit and so on. The healthcare system, too, even though it’s not state-funded like the NHS, has safety nets to prevent it becoming America.

In recent times Sweden has been plagued by the far right’s idea of a homogeneous welfare state. Switzerland has a welfare state, but it seems more individualistic. Is the far right as big a problem as we think?

I think it’s actually worse than you think. They’re not gaining ground, they’ve been around for twenty five years. The largest populist party is called the Swiss People’s Party, which in British terms is certainly far-right. I’m sure in Sweden, it would be considered quite extreme too. Parliament has thirteen parties. No one party ever has total control. Government is seven members and they always represent the four largest parties. So although the far-right has a strong voice here, and it regularly wins referendums, the Swiss system is geared towards consensus rather than confrontation. The people can always overturn government decisions by referendum. That gave rise to the populist far right, but it also controls it.

I believe Switzerland is unique in having a collective head of state…

Yes, Switzerland has never had a monarch or a president, and the collective head of state is the seven-member government, which represents the four largest parties in parliament. One member is nominally president each year, so that someone shakes hands with other presidents and makes speeches… but they can’t Tweet or do anything. It’s a collective effort.

Another thing that sets Switzerland apart is its decision not to join the European Union, creating an island in Europe. Sweden is a member, but joined late (in 1995) and kept its own currency. Are there any calls in Switzerland for their country to join?

I would say it’s pretty much an even split, and it has been for the last thirty years or so. Switzerland famously refused to even join the European Economic Area, so they didn’t even manage the halfway stage. One half is completely anti-Europe; the other sees a toss-up between immigration and the economy. 75 per cent of Swiss imports come from the European Union, so it’s between what people feel in their heart and their head. The right-wing parties have constantly raised referendums around free movement and so on. But Switzerland is in a different geographical position to Sweden, in that it’s surrounded by the European Union. It has no coastline or outlet, other than through an European Union country. So the Swiss are very practical. At the moment there’s a whole new raft of agreements between Switzerland and the European Union. It will pass through parliament and probably be approved in the referendum.

Switzerland has also never joined NATO and, like Sweden, it’s officially neutral. There are calls for Sweden to ditch that title and join NATO. Are there similar calls in Switzerland?

I would say no. Switzerland has been neutral for centuries. Its self-proclaimed neutrality is over four hundred years old, and its recognised neutrality dates from the 1815 Congress of Vienna. It’s ingrained into everything the Swiss do and believe. It took the Swiss until 2002 to even join the United Nations, whereas Sweden joined in 1946. The Swiss have forces in Kosovo under the UN flag, and that is still controversial. Obviously they benefit from being surrounded by NATO members and the peace it brings… many say they take the benefits without the cost or risks. But again, that’s a factor of geography. What’s more, Swiss neutrality is armed neutrality. Men do military service, gun ownership is high and there’s an arms industry that exports weapons to around seventy countries. But this armed neutrality is Swiss defence, not European defence.

Switzerland is famously sexist. Women weren’t given the right to vote until the 1970s…

1971 was when they got the vote at national level, but it wasn’t until 1991 that the last canton gave in, giving all women the vote at local level.

Goodness! So just under thirty years ago there was a European country where some women were denied the right to vote… Have things changed since then?

It has in some ways. At a national level, the permanent seven-member government always had at least three women. In parliament, Switzerland has one of the highest rates in Europe: 44 per cent are women. At local level too, 70 per cent of Bern’s city parliament are women. In other ways, though, it’s still quite conservative. Children come home for lunch, so someone has to be there for two hours. That’s usually the mother, not the father. So in that respect it’s hard for women to even get part-time jobs. Many people don’t see a problem with that… they’re still stuck in a 1960s mentality. The positive thing about change here, however (and we saw it with equal marriage passed last week), is that it though it takes a long time, but it takes the majority with it when it happens because it’s passed by a referendum.

I’ve only been to Switzerland once (to Ticino, the Italian speaking canton). What I noticed was cleanliness, efficiency and conformism. They seem very Swedish qualities too. Having been to Sweden yourself, do you agree?

Yes, certainly Switzerland is a very conformist society. Many creatives left Switzerland over the years… Ursula Andress to Hollywood, Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Paris and so on. Here it’s all about fitting in, and part of that’s about being on time and not holding people up. Swiss people do what they say and say what they do. Some people like that, others find it restrictive. It’s something that comes from the terrain. Switzerland is a cold country, like Sweden (though it’s much more mountainous). But punctuality comes from isolation in both countries.

We’ve talked a lot about the differences. I must have forgotten some similarities…

Well of course, I’d like to add one big similarity: Björn Borg was a great tennis player, so is Roger Federer. That’s one thing we do have in common. One thing we don’t have in common: Sweden is much better at Eurovision. Switzerland won twice, and one was with Canadian import Céline Dion… we actually had to import a winner!

DICCON BEWES is the bestselling author of  Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money and Slow Train to Switzerland: One Tour, Two Trips, 150 Years and a World of Change Apart.

This article is a Fika Online exclusive.

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