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Friede. Freiheit. Fussball.


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Sitting by the shores of Lake Zurich quaffing beer and munching quark streusel on a sultry May afternoon it’s not difficult to see why Switzerland’s largest city regularly tops the charts when it comes to those quality of life indices beloved of the travel sections of the Sunday papers. On the northern tip of the lake the compact city centre is full of medieval churches, art galleries, museums and designer boutiques and everyone looks like they’re in training for the next Iron Man. To the south, the crystal clear waters of the lake, strewn with yachts and pleasure boats, give way to the snow capped mountains of the Alps. And to the west the gentler, wooded slopes of Uetliberg provide a stunning panorama of it all.

But Zurich isn’t merely a playground for central Europe’s rich list. Underneath it all a radical heart beats strongly as well. Rote Fabrik (it translates as Red Factory) is one example, a former red brick silk mill that since 1980 has been a community and arts centre offering a wide ranging programme of music, theatre and exhibitions that is affordable (no ticket is more than 30 Swiss francs) and provides an alternative take on contemporary politics and culture.

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The walls of the former factory buildings are covered in some wonderful graffiti and the place has a more dishevelled, lived-in feel than the toothpaste-clean city centre. That’s no bad thing. It’s collectively run and is dedicated to fighting all forms of discrimination. It was a fitting introduction to Switzerland ahead of FC United of Manchester’s friendly match in nearby Winterthur.

Before we retired to Rote Fabrik’s ace lakeside beer garden we popped into the Shedhalle to view a recently opened exhibition by the Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi examining the role of art in political activism in galleries and museums and via social media such as Facebook. It included a section on the anti-World Cup protests currently taking place in Brazil as people question the prioritisation of a football tournament over the poverty endured by millions in the country’s favelas.

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Another glimpse of Switzerland’s bolshiness came a few days before we arrived in the country with a national referendum on raising the minimum wage. The Swiss system of direct democracy allows citizens to put forward any issue for a referendum if they can gather one hundred thousand signatures. No mean feat in a country with a population of just over eight million people. This latest yes-no vote on low pay was backed by the country’s trade union movement and proposed an increase in the minimum wage to 22 Swiss francs (or about £15) per hour. This would be equivalent to an annual salary of about thirty two thousand pounds making it the highest minimum wage in the world.

The proposal reflects a concern that the growing gap between rich and poor has gone too far and that it is becoming increasingly difficult for many people to afford to live in cities like Zurich and Geneva. Sadly the proposal was rejected by 76% of voters but it’s clear that beneath Switzerland’s peaceful, well-run image there is discontent with growing inequality and a willingness to tackle it rather than simply blame the problem on immigration. This was the third referendum on pay in the last eighteen months.

Closer to home, a recent report published by The Equality Trust highlighted that the UK is now one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. Britain’s one hundred richest people now have a combined wealth of £257 billion (an increase of £25 billion on 2013). That’s a mere one hundred people with wealth of a value that could keep the entire NHS running for about two and a half years. That’s a staggering statistic. Meanwhile the poorest third of households possess less than that between them all (£225 billion) according to the report. At the same time, one in six of GPs across the country have been asked to refer a patient to a food bank in the last twelve months.

The report goes on to demonstrate that this increasing gulf between rich and poor costs the UK economy about £39 billion pounds a year. The impact of inequality on life expectancy, mental illness and in the growth of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity is widely acknowledged and it is the health service in particular that has to cope with this growing burden. But growing inequality also weakens community life, tearing at the social fabric that binds us together and reduces trust and increases violence and crime.

Yet in the recent local and European elections the issue of growing inequality was barely mentioned. In London, aside from the Green Party, no party openly campaigned on the issue of tackling inequality. Indeed, in the country’s largest city there wasn’t a single party campaigning on a socialist pro-European platform. In contrast, the Equality Trust want to make inequality one of the main issues of next year’s general election and are inviting us all to ask every candidate fighting for a seat in parliament what they will do to tackle inequality.

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A couple of days after visiting Rote Fabrik, we boarded an always-on-time double decker train to Winterthur to drink more beer, eat sausages, gaze at spacemen and sing songs in the sunshine at the Stadion Schutzenwiese with the fans of FC Winterthur. The end of season friendly match was billed as a celebration of “the true spirit of football”. FC Winterthur play in the Swiss second division and are a club with a proud history having been champions of Switzerland on three occasions. Like FC United they pride themselves on having a philosophy that sees football as more than just a game. They recognise the wider social and political responsibilities of a football club and the role that football can play in fighting poverty, discrimination and violence in all its forms. “Friede. Freiheit. Fussball” proclaimed the club’s red and white scarfs.

It was a cracking day and a timely reminder that when we gaze across national borders it often becomes blindingly obvious that many of us have more in common with people in other countries than those from our own nation who espouse the appalling little Englander politics of UKIP. Go for a pint with Nigel Farage? Stick your white van man watered down fascism I’d rather have a beer or two with one of them anti-fascist flag waving Swiss football fans.

On the pitch, meanwhile, our red shirted heroes were soundly beaten 4-1. So much for Swiss notions of equality eh.


From → Politics, Sport

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