“The Russians are coming!” I make this observation not in horror, as might have a native of the unhappy Polish city of Lvov in 1939, but as a passive statement of fact. One after another, black limousines laden with designer luggage pull up outside the hotel front door. Uniformed porters unload the piles of suitcases and usher their owners through into the oak-panelled reception. Yes, the Russians are indeed coming, along with the Germans, Italians, Dutch, Swiss and even the odd Czech and Hungarian. But where are the British, creators of this winter wonderland, or indeed the Americans?
Respect for Britain as a nation is fading
Certainly, anti-Covid measures will have kept many away – the ban on Britons which the normally friendly Swiss have imposed is especially draconian – but I sense something deeper too. A fundamental change is in process. Respect for Britain as a nation, without whom these Russians, Germans, Italians and the rest would never be here, is fading. The influence of the British people is diminishing; their importance on the world stage is in decline.
I am seated in the elegant lobby of the legendary Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St Moritz, winter mecca for the world’s wealthy. Despite Covid, the hotel and most of its counterparts in the town are full. The fashionable shops are open and busy. The traffic-choked streets are brightly lit with Christmas decorations, and although obliged by the vigilant local police to wear the now ubiquitous facemask, the luxurious life of the super-rich strolling in their furs appears to be largely unaffected.
It is well known that the British colonised the Alps during the “Belle Epoque”, the Swiss enthusiastically supporting them by building luxury hotels and electric railways to bring their wealthy guests to the newly flourishing resorts. But what is less well known is an earlier era of Anglo-Swiss friendship and cooperation, illustrated by the Reverend Strettel coming to St Moritz to establish an Anglican church in 1860, and even before that, when in 1815, Joseph de Planta, son of a wealthy Engadine landowner, accompanied the British Prime Minister Lord Castlereagh to the Congress of Vienna as his personal secretary (he later co-founded the Carlton Club in London).
Evidence of this particular instance of early Anglo-Swiss co-operation can be seen by taking the electric train over the Bernina pass to the little town of Poschiavo. Still part of Switzerland, but otherwise Italian in every sense, this southern pocket of the Graubunden canton owes its existence to the determination of the Swiss, with Castlereagh’s support, to push their post-Napoleonic borders beyond the mountain passes and down towards Austrian-occupied Lombardy, so to be better able to defend themselves against attack from their traditional enemy.
The British, lovers of liberty and defenders of democracy, made it possible for these people to be rich and free
As the train snakes its way down from the pass, I reflect on how too it was the British engineer Robert Stephenson who first planned the Swiss railway system, and the Englishmen Charles Brown, father and son, who founded the great electrical engineering company Brown Boveri which made possible the now-ubiquitous Swiss electric trains.
But this Engadine valley prospered even before the British arrived. De Planta’s private mercenary army ran to three regiments totalling several thousand men and was much in demand by Europe’s warring monarchs in the 16th and 17th centuries. Louis XIV was a favourite client. Trade too helped swell the economy, mule trains across the Bernina and Maloja passes linking Hapsburg Lombardy with its Viennese capital. The ruling Engadiner families built castles and fine houses along the valley, providing employment for its peoples and patronising the arts and learning. A former de Planta mansion in Sameden, now a museum, includes fine works of art and a large library of books in Romansche, the local language, derived from Latin and still in use.
My mind returns to the present. These Russians, do they realise that it is thanks to the British and Americans winning the Cold War that they are at liberty to become immensely wealthy without being shot and that they can travel freely to the once-forbidden West? And these ultra-prosperous Germans, they too have the British and Americans to thank, firstly for protecting them from the Soviet menace and then for bringing about the collapse of the infamous Berlin Wall and the subsequent German reunification. Only the insightful will realise and be grateful for this.
At dinner in the comfortably rustic Chesa Veglia I engage a Dutch family in conversation. “What now, Britain, now that you have left the EU?”, they ask me politely. To appreciative nods of understanding I remind them that Britain and Holland were friends long before the European Union ever existed. We provided safe haven for the Dutch royal family in 1940 when Hitler’s armies invaded its homeland. Holland even gave England a king, when William of Orange sailed across the channel to accept the English throne in 1688. These facts of history run much deeper than the artificial superficiality of the European Union.
Educating the children of the international elite is possibly the only remaining pocket of British influence
I return from Poschiavo in time for the New Year dinner in the Palace Hotel’s grand dining room. Dress code is black tie. A Russian family enters. The mother is elegant in long black dress, her mini-skirted daughters all legs and heels. Father, oblivious to the dress code, slouches tie-less in a casual jacket. And the son? Smartly and correctly attired in black tie, he sits confidently at the table, calmly observing the proceedings. It is certain that he is the product of a British public school, to which Europe’s wealthy today send their sons and daughters almost without exception. Disturbed, I reflect sadly that educating the children of the international elite is possibly the only remaining pocket of British influence.
The energetic and resourceful British, lovers of liberty and defenders of democracy, made it possible for these people to be rich and free. Together with their long-time friends, the energetic and resourceful Swiss, they built this present-day playground for those they liberated to enjoy. But who knows or remembers this today?
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