The federal state system offers scope for differentiated solutions

Reflections on Oliver Zimmer’s book “Wer hat Angst vor Tell? Unzeitgemässes zur Demokratie” (Who is afraid of Wilhelm Tell? Untimely aspects of democracy)

by Urs Graf

In his newly published book “Wer hat Angst vor Willhelm Tell? Unzeitgemässes zur Demokratie”1 Professor Oliver Zimmer raises fundamental questions about the political development of our society. He does so by comparing observations from Great Britain and Switzerland, where he has spent half of his life to date. The historian, who grew up in the Swiss town Thalwil and has been teaching at Oxford for more than twenty years, describes his expositions as “untimely” because they are not in the mainstream of the published zeitgeist. His historical and political-philosophical explanations are therefore very interesting.

Intellectual elites  in the “golden triangle”

First, there is the tension between “liberalism” and “democracy”, which already existed in the 19th century when the Swiss federal state was founded. Zimmer describes the “radical” Jakob Stämpfli and the “liberal” Alfred Escher as the antipodes of the debate at that time, with the former advocating above all participation (democracy) and the latter free enterprise. He considers both approaches to be existential for our political culture in the sense that it is precisely this ongoing tension that best balances freedom and responsibility.
  Zimmer describes the mindset of today’s (liberal) intellectual elites in the “golden triangle” of London-Oxford-Cambridge, where a society of higher-paid service providers in the private and public sectors has concentrated, seeing itself as cosmopolitan and having hardly any contact with the local population. It is subject to the misunderstanding that this society owes its privileged position exclusively to its own performance (meritocracy), without the help of others throughout the country who enjoy less prestige and advantages for their daily work. This can be seen above all in the sharply polarised debate about Brexit, of which only the voices of the “Remainers” can be heard in this country, i.e. those Britons who want to remain in the EU. In Switzerland, this social polarisation also exists – and certainly among parties of different colours.

Trajectories of democracy

Zimmer points to the different understandings of the structure and function of the state (in terms of constitutional jurisdiction versus popular sovereignty) as they have developed in the nations in the course of their social history. They determine the relationship between citizen and state. Liberals advocated the universality of human rights, the separation of powers and the constitution, but they distrusted the people (demos), whom they preferred not to grant legislative power. In Switzerland, the so-called people’s rights (referendum and initiative) - at that time still without the participation of women - were gradually introduced in the course of the 19th century under the pressure of predominantly rural (conservative) democracy movements. The trajectories of democracies in continental Europe have not been the same as in Switzerland or the United Kingdom. And the perception of laws--as democratically negotiated collective treaties or as decrees from higher authorities (the political reality of the EU) – is also dependent on this.
  There is a similarity between Switzerland and the UK in terms of their democratic traditions and their autonomy vis-à-vis the EU, which today certainly corresponds to the “island” metaphor.

Judicial state instead of democracy

The tendency to juridify politics is also critically examined. Zimmer, for example, draws on the expertise of the British judge Lord Hoffmann, who has been pointing out this problem for decades: The European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg and increasingly also the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg make political decisions for the further standardisation of all member states.2 Courts that make law themselves undo the democratic achievement of the separation of powers. Democracy is being replaced by the “judicial state”, the top-down administration – the wise tyrant?
  Zimmer misses a critical debate on this topic among Swiss legal scholars as well. They should be more aware of the cultural-historical conditionality of the decisions by EU courts on which they rely. Otherwise, our Federal Constitution as the supreme source of law will soon be undermined by judges who do not even speak our language ...
  The political debate is always shaped by a certain philosophical approach to history. Those who impute a lawfulness to cultural history – an unavoidable “progress”, and claim scientific objectivity for this position, as Hegel and Marx did, are easily led to the elitist attitude of distinguishing other opinions into those to be adopted and those to be overheard.

The need for an honest debate on the framework agreement

One can only agree with the author’s wish for an honest debate on the significance of the Framework Agreement (InstA). Switzerland’s accession would not be, as its supporters claim, a “continuation of the bilateral path”, but a one-way street to the EU – with all the negative consequences for our Swiss “way of life” of direct democracy with the three-tier federal state structure and the voluntary cooperation of citizens in many public tasks and offices according to the militia principle.
  There is, however, a section of the population and also certain sectors of the economy that – rightly or not – hope for particular advantages from such a development. They should be forthright about it and stop dismissing other fellow citizens’ justified concerns about democratic participation as “populist”.

Distorted image of Switzerland

In his book, Oliver Zimmer looks at Swiss historians who represent so-called critical patriotism. They twisted the exceptionalism of Switzerland, which thanks to its political culture was able to stay out of three murderous wars between its neighbouring states, into the negative – as an isolated, backward country that only profited from developments in the world but made no contribution to them.
  The same distorted image is also represented by those cultural workers who, in 1991, with the slogan “700 years are enough”, unabashedly presented themselves as defilers of their own nests. Oliver Zimmer is to be thanked for helping to classify this so-called critical patriotism of the post-war generation.

The EU – a product of American post-war policy

Personally, it seems significant to me in terms of my life history that the book deals with the ironic attack on the self-image of the Swiss, for example by Max Frisch. The latter emerged in 1970 as the nation’s schoolmaster with his “Wilhelm Tell für die Schule” (William Tell for Schools). The man of letters wanted to break the myth of the unruly freedom fighter and was awarded the Swiss Schiller Foundations’ Great Schiller Prize in 1974!
  For many secondary school students, he created a cult book. And unnoticed by most contemporaries, he supported a new myth, that of supranationalism – the core ideology of the European Union.
  The EU has always been a political rather than an economic project on the European continent. This is clear from many documents since its founding.
  And one should stop touting it as a “peace project”. It was pushed through step by step by Washington in the course of American post-war policy against pre-existing initiatives by European countries. Those who believed that it had been created for the purpose of securing peace in Europe should have been disappointed at the latest since the 1990s, when the leading countries of the then EU again carried war to the Balkans fifty years after 1945.


The analysis is followed by an outlook: The Swiss should resist the EU’s pressure to integrate with more self-confidence, because they have good reasons to do so. Those who respect peoples only according to their trade volume cannot form a “community” anyway.
  Our political culture has proven itself, and it is capable of development. Our dual vocational training system gives the entire population a chance in working life. It helps to close the social gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. And the federal structure of the state offers scope for differentiated solutions that have to prove themselves in comparison among the administrative units. There is not even a copyright on this. •

1 Zimmer, Oliver. Wer hat Angst vor Tell. Unzeitgemässes zur Demokratie (Who is afraid of Tell. Untimely things about democracy). Basel 2020. Echtzeit. ISBN 978-3–906807-21-8. New edition available on 31 January 2021
2 Oliver Zimmer quotes Lord Hoffmann as saying: “This is an attempt to transform the Herderian diversity of institutions and customs, this feature of a living European culture, into a Voltairean Unité de Doctrine.” (Cited by Zimmer, p. 158 from The modern Law Review, Vol. 62, No. 2, 1999)

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