Here in Sweden – as, I believe, in other Scandinavian countries – everyone has access to everyone else’s tax returns on the internet. I’m sure it’s sometimes circumvented, but not in most cases, and it seems to deter dishonesty and greed. People really do feel that they are ‘all in it together’ (whatever ‘it’ is).
Maybe David Cameron learned about this from Fredrik Reinfeldt, when he visited him in Stockholm in February. Apparently they got on famously, with Cameron taking away all kinds of ideas. It is interesting how the ‘Swedish model’ has flipped recently, so far as Britain is concerned; formerly an ideal of social democracy, it has now taken on a much more rightist tinge. George Osborne may have got the idea of increasing pensioners’ taxes (in effect) from Reinfeldt, who did the same when his coalition was re-elected in 2010. By that time his ‘Moderaten’ (Conservatives) had cunningly rebranded themselves as the ‘real workers’ party’: of workers, that is, as opposed to slackers, which pensioners essentially are.
The most exciting Swedish idea the Tories took over, of course, was the ‘free’ schools. Here the Swedes have gone even further than the British, with schools now run by private companies for profit. England doesn’t have that – yet. What Cameron (and Michael Gove) may not be aware of, however, is the controversy that is raging over the experiment here. A couple of months ago Swedish state television, no less, carried an exposé of it, called Världens bästa Skitskola. (The Swedish sk is pronounced ‘sh’.) The title was a play on the education minister’s boast that his free schools would be the ‘world’s best’. Entrepreneurs are milking them for profit. Standards are going down. Not the best of ‘models’, one would have thought.
Thankfully the old leftist Swedish model still exists: in the country’s generous provisions for parental leave and childcare, for example; strong trade unions, co-operating with employers; widespread political participation; and free higher education for all. Its economy seems to be doing pretty well by comparison with Britain’s, with bankers on a tight leash. This is by no means a perfect society. (I’ve expressed my doubts about its justice system before.) But at bottom Sweden retains its communitarian – dare one say socialist? – soul. Cameron might take some tips for a genuine ‘Big Society’ from that.