Despite the country’s importance, Switzerland has never figured very largely in British academic life. This is especially true of Swiss Politics. For while there has been a reasonable amount of teaching on Swiss literature, in French, German and Italian, within the confines of language departments, notably in Birmingham and Strathclyde, there has never been a specific course on Swiss politics until 2003. This is both cause and result of the fact that there has never been a proper textbook on Swiss politics. This may also partly explain why so many public mentions of Switzerland in the United Kingdom are often riddled with errors.
This does not mean of course, that there has not been any research on Switzerland in this country nor that there has never been any teaching on Switzerland. However, both have been few in number and rather circumstantial. There have, in fact, been a number of well-known academics with an interest in Swiss politics beginning with Christopher Hughes of Leicester between the 1950s and 1970s. He produced significant works on the Swiss Parliament and Constitution, amongst other things. His inaugural lecture on Confederacies was a classic. His books replaced works in English by Swiss writers such as Codding, Rappard and Sauser Hall, becoming the standards of their time but he never actually taught a course on Swiss politics. Rather he used Switzerland in teaching comparative politics and, especially, on federalism.
In the next generation were Michael Hurst of Oxford and Jonathan Steinberg of Cambridge, both of whom were essentially historians but who ranged quite widely. Steinberg’s Why Switzerland? thus placed the country in the context of modern European democracy, as, in a different way, Jürg Steiner of Berne and North Carolina whose European Democracies has become a well-used textbook in the UK. Wolf Linder, also of Berne, similarly made the case for Swiss direct democracy in the 1990s in his Swiss Democracy. At the same time there were a number of Ph.Ds on Switzerland, such as Kobach’s on direct democracy and Jenkins’s on the Jura question. Oddly enough Mo Mowlam once did some work in the late 1970s on the Swiss left and its use of referenda. History does not record whether she found this useful in Northern Ireland. At the same time there was one brief but promising venture in Nottingham when Professor David Childs established an Institute and a journal for the study of Austrian, German and Swiss Politics. Unfortunately this later imploded since its funding came from the unhappy British and Colonial which collapsed in doubtful circumstances, taking both ventures with it.
So, interest in Switzerland remained a very individual matter. Thus, more recently, Clive Church has written widely on Swiss topics such as elections, environmental politics and Euroscepticism, not to mention Swiss relations with the EU. Unfortunately, such irregular contributions did not succeed either in making much of an impact on conventional textbooks or in producing a rounded vision of politics in Switzerland. Textbooks tended to ignore the country or to treat it as simply the exemplar of structural things like consociationalism – which it never was – or federalism. Switzerland as a country with an ordinary political life was rarely appreciated or accepted.
When it came to teaching, it was not until the late 1970s that there was a general course on Switzerland. This emerged at the University of Lancaster, due to the interests of Clive Church, then a historian and Keith Wren, a literary specialist. With the help of others, and the Swiss Embassy, they mounted a course on Swiss Studies. This began with a historical introduction to Switzerland and then moved on to an analysis of a series of classic 19th and 20th century literary texts before rounding off with a consideration of post-1945 Switzerland. Although the political element in the course was limited, it was to grow when, after the European Studies department in Lancaster closed, the two teachers involved moved to Canterbury as part of the transfers of area studies staff in the early 1980s.
Profiting from the fact that the Faculty of Humanities then had a convenient slot for inter-disciplinary topics in the summer term, they relaunched their course as Aspects of Switzerland. This began with a consideration of the social and economic geography of the country, moved on to questions of religion, language and culture (again including texts) and then to history. The final quarter of the course was given over to political subjects, domestic and foreign. These included parties, communes, neutrality and EC relations and provided a reasonable overview. Neither course demanded foreign language skills. The course also provided a basis for a Swiss Week as part of the celebrations of the 700th anniversary of the Confederation in 1991. The course ran successfully, albeit on a smallish scale, throughout the 1980s. It was then brought to an end by the introduction of a new curricular structure which extended mainstream courses into the summer term.