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The political uses of Swiss-ishness

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
26 May 2008

Tony Curzon Price (London, oD): A friend of mine tells this story of a first encounter with a French scientist, met under the building-sized replica of the DNA molecule in Crick and Watson's laboratory: English Scientist: "Beautiful, isn't it ?... " pointing at the bobbles and wire. French Scientist: "Not like Fermat's theorem". English Scientist: "Of course, I speak from Anglo-Saxon empiricism". French Scientist: "I know. You should never have burned Joan of Arc".

These are the coded short-cuts which, with enough depth to the relationship, speak loudly. Helvetiophiles will know this kind of short-cut well: Helvetiophile: "Democracy can be distributed, look at Switzerland". Party Animal: "Don't you miss the strong leadership, the direction, the re-alligments and historic moments?" Helvetiophile: "I meant for everyday democracy, for an informed citizenry, for people responsible for their collective decisions". Party Animal: "Ah yes. Cuckoo clocks, Nazi gold, gnomes and sanatoria ..."

Time Magazine is running the latest episode in this rapid reduction. (Hat tip to the enthusiasts at Direct Democracy). The populist anti-immigrant Volkspartei (SVP) has organised a referendum aiming at returning the power to bestow citizenship to the lowest level of government, the Communes. This is where the power lay until 2003, when a Supreme Court ruled that the repeated refusal of citizenship by some German-speaking rural Communes was against the federal constitution. Naturalisation became a centralised administrative procedure.

So is the SVP referendum to add to the litany of abuse: "... sanatoria and anti-immigrant referenda"? I am not sure. The Volkspartei holds plenty of nasty opinions, and it wants this referendum to reduce the rate of naturalisations. But I think it is right, and for legitimate reasons that are far from the considerations of the Volkspartei, to keep the decision at the most local level possible.

Naturalisation is not asylum; it is a request to join a group for the long haul, to participate in a future. It is quite right for asylum and sanctuary to be universal rights, protected by international law. But not naturalisation. Naturalisation engages everyone, and responsibility for it should be active and positive on all sides. A bureacratic Britishness test does not politically engage either the host or the potential subject. 

Before 2003, it was always known that the French-speaking cantons, and especially Geneva, were an easy touch for naturalisation. There is no reason to think that these open political cultures would become closed if the power to naturalise were returned to them. Many London local authorities would similarly be open if naturalisation decisions were so-devolved here. Switzerland taken as a whole naturalised more people per head of population in the decade before 2003 than any other European country.

Of course, giving localities the right to naturalise imposes an "externality" on the other localities within the state. This is the same for citizenship of the EU---whoever Sweden naturalises also has residence permission in Poland. There is the danger that "rogue liberals" will become extra-soft on naturalisation knowing full-well that some of the cost will be borne by the xenophobic autarchies of the union. Decentralised naturalisation seems to have an automatic bias in favor of openness---anyone naturalisable by the most liberal is naturalisable by the group.

The Volkspartei, it hardly needs to be said, is not championing states rights for this reason. There is a danger that "rogue openness" will stretch the federation to breaking point, but if it does not get that far, then it offers a wonderful compromise: all the benefits of a liberal naturalisation policy while the xenophobes can continue to feel that the foreigners in their midst are not there with their blessing.

Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will point to us and say: "How could you have done it? how could you have excluded so many, so systematically, from your protected gardens?" We should have an answer that does not involve the excuse that these decisions were taken by an impenetrable central bureaucracy that we trusted to do the right thing. Localising naturalisation would be a good place to start.

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