The Swiss are wiser about more than direct democracy. Part I.

Maybe you think of Switzerland as the land of cheese, watches and banks. Perhaps the most important contribution the Swiss can make to the World, if the World is willing to learn, is in politics. They already had the amazing collective insight of direct democracy, but there is more.

They are the only people in the World with a solid system of direct democracy in all levels of government. Fortunately, the idea seems to be spreading. This modest blog is to make more people aware of the advance direct democracy represents for humanity.

More amazing is that even Swiss direct democracy has not caught up with ancient Greek direct democracy.

In Ancient Greek direct democracy, the people chose who ruled AND also were the rulers themselves. They had no professional politicians, no political parties, no kings, no ruling priests, no dictators, and no oligarchs.

Another day I will get into why, 2 600 years later, we have not caught up to those guys.

Today I write about another Swiss insight. It is about how separating language and culture from legal territories helps governance and social, political and economic stability, and protect minority languages and cultures. Which society does not want that?

Let us look at this country of 8.5 million in the mountains of central Europe. Switzerland has four cultures, each with its own language; this spells trouble, big trouble, in some countries, not in Switzerland. Perhaps Swiss chocolate does something special to the brain…

59% of the Swiss speak Swiss German, 11% speak standard German, 23% speak French, mostly Swiss French, 8.2% speak Italian, mostly Swiss Italian, and 0.5% speak Romansh.

Had the Swiss not found a way to separate language and culture from territory, Switzerland would have four territories; one for each of the four linguistic groups. Instead Switzerland has 26 cantons, 26 territories. Territories and “tribal” feelings are not far apart when territory, language and culture go together. It seems that smaller, weaker, territories generate less tribal feelings.

The Swiss said: “we do not want any of that tribal stuff. It has given us plenty of problems in the past”. So the Swiss separated territory from language and culture. The cantons in Switzerland are very local. They are far more local than the areas occupied by languages and cultures in Switzerland. Smaller means weaker, but weaker does not mean lack of autonomy to allow you to do all you can do.

So local is the approach that the smallest canton, the canton of Appenzell Innerrthoden, has only 16 000 inhabitants. This is the size of a small town. In most countries it is unthinkable such small place would have representation as such in the national parliament. In Switzerland it does. The largest canton, the canton of Zurich, has 1.5 million.

In land area, the differences are also huge. The smallest is the canton of Basel-Stadt with only 37 square kilometers. This is a land area of 6 km by 6 km, not very big.  The largest is the canton of Grisons, with 7 000, 190 times larger, but still tiny; just 84 by 84 km.

Other multicultural countries follow a very different approach.

For example, Canada, the UK, Belgium, Spain, etc., organize their territories around culture and language in the areas where large minorities live.

Because of that approach, in Canada, the province of Quebec ” is the French-speaking province”. The key mandate of the Quebec government, of any political stripe, is to preserve the “Frenchness” of Quebec by means of language, culture, economy, education, etc.

Something like that happens in the UK. The UK puts less emphasis on the language and more on culture. Most Scots speak only English, but Scotland insists on its unique identity and on a unitary Scottish territory.

In Belgium they have Flanders and Wallonia. Flanders is Flemish-speaking and Wallonia French-speaking. The political and social tensions in the country are well-known. Obviously, Belgian chocolate, while extraordinarily delicious, does to have the same ingredients Swiss chocolate has…

In Spain they also have 4 major languages-culture; Castilian Spanish, Catalan, Galician and Basque. Each language-culture has its own “one language-one culture” territory, or tries to.  This is not the case for the Spanish-speaking area. This area has been divided into several ones.

The tensions in Spain between the governments of non-Spanish-speaking territories and the Spanish state are a constant problem.

Political tensions in relation to cultural-linguistic identity are strong in all those countries. They never go away.

Things could better if those countries followed the Swiss approach.

This is what would happen:

Let us start with Canada.

Because of its much larger population, if it does what they do in Switzerland, Canada will be divided into 107 cantons. Quebec, which has a population like Switzerland, will become 26 cantons. Most of them, except a few around Montreal, which will be bilingual, will be unilingual French-speaking cantons.

Many more cantons would replace all current Canadian provinces. But French-speaking areas within English Canada, even very small ones, would also become cantons. This could be better for French Canadians.

Canadians with other languages, such as indigenous peoples, would also have their own cantons.

There will be no need to try to make millions of people bilingual, because no canton would be that large. Most cantons will be unilingual by choice of the residents of the canton. Some will decide to be bilingual to reflect the local reality.

Why try to make millions bilingual if unilingualism protects minority languages?

In Part II of this post I will continue the discussion.

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