Switzerland has about the highest standard of living in the world. Apart from a few oil exporters and Luxembourg, it is by most measures the richest – an extraordinary achievement for a land-bound country with no natural resources. Yet because it is familiar we tend not to understand its exceptional qualities – though some people have begun to ponder whether it could become a model for Britain, as a member of the European Free Trade Association rather than the EU.
So how did the Swiss transform themselves from one of the poorest countries in Europe? James Breiding is founder of his own fund-management company in Zurich but has spent much of his career outside Switzerland, and his is a story about the great Swiss businesses, the driving force behind the economy. There are famous brand names, such as Nestlé and Swatch, but also many enterprises that operate under most people's radar, commodity traders and architects, medical technology and – of course – the private banks.
But why? One thread that runs throughout is that Switzerland has for centuries been a haven for talented outsiders. Many were Huguenots, fleeing persecution in France. They founded the Geneva private-banking and watch industries and the Basle pharmaceutical industry. Perhaps the most prominent refugee was Heinrich Nestlé, who arrived from Frankfurt in the early 19th century. More recently Nicolas Hayek arrived from Lebanon and rescued the mass watch industry by creating Swatch. Recently, many multinationals have chosen to base their European operations in Switzerland rather than in the EU. Google has its largest research facility outside the US in Zurich.
Is the lure a favourable tax regime? Breiding acknowledges this factor. Others might argue that the country benefitted massively from neutrality, though as home to the Red Cross it would be hard to mount that as a criticism. But he argues effectively that the accumulation of talented people over the centuries has given the country its special status. Whether this is a model for Britain is another matter.