Legalised marijuana. Low gun crime despite the liberal gun laws. Life expectancy for men and women in the 80s. Switzerland is certainly full of surprises.
One of our meetings was in Bern, in the Swiss Parliament building and, as is perhaps usual with a foreign delegation, we had a tour of the Federal Assembly – a chance to see the inner sanctum of a country that hasn’t lost its ability to surprise.
The Swiss system of government is quite unusual in that the people, with enough signatures (50k), can overturn any decision made in either of the two chambers – (1) the National Council, with its 200 members elected by a system of proportional representation since 1919, and (2) the Council of States, with two members representing each of the 26 cantons – and send it to popular vote. It seems as if the Swiss like to vote. They’ve had seven referendums so far this year with two more in the offing in September and November. [There are 46 members of the Council of States and this has something to do with some cantons having split in two lately but retaining one rep for each half of the split.]
In the Council of States, members debate in their chosen language, and as there are no interpreters, everyone is expected to be fluent in each of the four Swiss languages – French, German, Italian, and Romansch (yep – that was a new one on me, too – I had to look it up. What’s amazing though is that it’s an official language even though it’s spoken by less than 1% of the population). And there are no terms, as such. You’re in until you stop being elected.
The building itself was completed in 1902, both chambers connected by a domed hall in the centre in which stand the Three Confederates whose oath was most likely made famous by Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell.
We want to be a single People of brethren,
Never to part in danger nor distress.
We want to be free, as our fathers were,
And rather die than live in slavery.
We want to trust in the one highest God
And never be afraid of human power.
The 5×12 m painting on the wall of the National Council is called The cradle of the confederation (Le berceau de la confédération/Die Wiege der Eidgenossenschaft). Painted by Charles Giron, 1901, it has, hidden in the clouds, a naked female who is said to symbolise peace. It’s a restful room, lined with beautifully carved seats and overhung with wrought iron balconies heavy with visitors on the days the council is in session. That’s certainly one thing the Swiss have over the majority of their European counterparts – they’re fully engaged in the governing of their country.
- Even though its gun laws are rather liberal, Switzerland has one of the lowest crime rates of all industrialised countries (2.3–4.5 million guns in a population of 8 million).
- As at 2013, 85% of men and only 41% of women work full-time.
- Women didn’t get to vote until 1971.
- Only about 2% of Swiss wine leaves the country.
- Possession of marijuana was decriminalised last year.
Worth a visit if you find yourself in Bern visiting the Bärengraben (Bear Pit).