For over ten years I have taught English at some of Zurich’s more prominent financial companies, so I see the internal workings of these enterprises first hand. The last few years have been difficult for the people who work there, but this year has been nothing short of disastrous. Abysmal trading results and crashing stock prices have forced these companies into radical reorganisation strategies. Projects have been cancelled and moneysaving measures adopted including staff in numbers unthinkable a few years ago. One company when firing staff in sensitive positions allows them only 30 minutes to clear their desks, before they are sent home.

These are not happy times for the Swiss economy. In July a British newspaper asked me to write an article on the rise and fall of the Swiss economy. The editor reasoned that the news that had reached him over recent years was nothing but bad and so Switzerland must be on its knees by now.

Indeed the image of Switzerland and our national pride has taken a beating over the last few years. From the murky stories of Switzerland’s World Word II refugee policy and Nazi gold, the collapse of Swissair, economic and moral questions hang over a number of Swiss institutions which only a short while ago, appeared invincible and set to survive for centuries to come. Former jewels in Switzerland’s economic crown have share values a tenth that of two years ago. These Swiss ‘blue chips’ are sacking staff wholesale, while there are revelations of incompetence, bad management and shady dealings. Even Swiss efficiency took a blow with the mid-air collision of two planes under Swiss air traffic control.

Switzerland is for outsiders in so many ways a conundrum. They see neutrality for centuries, but an army bigger than the UK’s and a thriving arms industry. The country that invented muesli also has the highest level of smokers in Western Europe – here you are more likely to find a restaurant that bans meat, than one that bans smoking. Switzerland’s egalitarian system of self-government is held up to the world as a near-perfect example of how democracy should work. But the Swiss cabinet has been made up of the same four political parties since 1959 regardless of what the voters say.

Things move slowly and carefully in here and many countries don’t understand this. Decisions are made neither rashly nor quickly – it is simply not in the Swiss character to do anything else. There is a saying that the Swiss get up early, but are slow to wake up. This conservative policy served the country well during the twentieth century – holding on to the best of what works and at the same time adopting the best of what is new. British town celebrated the end of the tram – London’s last ran in 1953. Now British cities suddenly see the advantage of railed transport in congested city streets and the tram is making a comeback. The British modernised their education system so many times that it is now in crisis and parents with any money take their children out of the failing state school system and put them into private education.

Conservatism, discretion and caution are the cornerstones of Swiss society and are what made the Swiss banking, insurance and high-quality engineering world- renowned. Suddenly in the twenty-first century these very characteristics that built financial empires are under attack and are threatening their collapse. For Swiss folk it may be normal to repair things before they break. It may be normal to resurface roads before holes appear. It may be normal to renovate a building every twenty years. It may be normal to test the flood alarms each year. Be assured, such luxuries are well out of the reach of most lands. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is the motto the British abide by. And this has left them with, for example, a rail system that is old, expensive, inefficient and downright dangerous.

So Switzerland must confidently exploit its assets and do what it does best. Remember what the advent of the digital watch did to the watch industry in the 1970s? And more important as a result, how the industry was reborn, maximizing on what Switzerland is good at. Today the Swiss economy appears out of step and uncompetitive. Maintaining great traditions is an expensive luxury in today’s hard commercial world. It may appear that the Swiss ‘slow and steady’ approach and the new century are uncomfortable bedfellows just now. However, we are small and flexible enough to meet any challenge. In 2001 a Financial Times survey rated Switzerland highest among countries best placed to develop its high-tech industries. And as for resources: any economy that is backed by so much gold that its people have to vote on what to do with the excess, can’t fail – surely? Switzerland is just changing, not failing.

PS. My article put a positive spin on Switzerland and so was not used. It seems only bad news sells newspapers. (They did pay me, though!)