Why Sweden Matters

Bernard Porter

Doesn’t anyone out there care what’s happening to Sweden? I posted two pieces a couple of weeks ago on the elections here; hardly anyone responded, apart from a handful with Swedish, Danish and Norwegian email addresses. In the British press, so far as I can tell, the only aspect of the election that has made even inside-page headlines is the ‘rise’ of an anti-immigration party, now in the Riksdag for the first time. To be fair, you find that in Swedish papers too. It has clearly been a bit of a shock, but should be put in perspective: Sverigedemokraten got a grand total of 339,610 votes (5.7 per cent); 100,000 people demonstrated against the party in Sergelstorg in Stockholm the day after the election. Sverigedemokraten also apparently found it difficult to find dedicated candidates; one of them resigned his seat on a local council the day he was elected after reading their manifesto for the first time: ‘What’s all this? Immigrants are my friends.’ The big change was that they managed for the first time to inch over the 4 per cent line that entitles them to have members of parliament. But no one else there will have anything to do with them.

The really significant feature of the election is that it marked a second defeat in a row for the Social Democrats and their ‘Red-Green’ allies. (‘Red’ is not a swear word here.) That ought to be more worrying for British leftists. I come from the generation, and the political tendency, that used to admire Sweden enormously in the 1970s, as our great political model; the proof that equality, social justice and, yes, solidarity were compatible with prosperity, and could liberate people in a way that unrestrained capitalism didn’t. A Guardian leader recently described Stockholm as our ‘Shining City upon a Hill’; the opposite pole to the more famous American one. That’s how it was to me. Coming here in the mid-1990s, I of course found that not everything was as shining as I had hoped it would be – far from it – but it was still pretty remarkable: wealth spread widely, high taxation accepted as the price of a civilised society, very little poverty or crime by British standards, good and free education, friendly communal interaction, enlightened asylum and immigration policies, very little racism compared to (say) Denmark, and a degree of gender equality – this especially – that I’d never have thought possible.

All this was disturbing for free market ideologues. In America they couldn’t credit it. Here was a country where hardly anyone goes to church, divorce is easy, children are taken away from their mothers at the age of one (during the day, in state-funded pre-schools), women work, fathers have to do girly things like looking after babies, criminals are mollycoddled (compared to elsewhere), the middle classes pay pretty high taxes, people work less (they have very long holidays here), healthcare is nationalised: all the things that for many Americans ought to spell disaster in fact achieve all the goods that the American right claims it wants: better health, less crime, happier families, more social morality, far superior education, greater productivity, a higher per capita income, and even more individual ‘freedom’ (depending on how you measure it).

I remember about ten years ago a spate of articles appearing in the American press that claimed all this was an illusion. Under the surface Sweden was very different – repressed, conformist, deeply miserable. One article (using some dodgy Interpol statistics) even tried to show that the murder rate was higher than Chicago’s. More recently, a couple of famous Swedes are continuing the job for them, though unwittingly (both are of the left): Henning Mankell, whose Wallander novels are characterised by the gruesomeness of their crimes and the unhappiness of their hero; and the late Stieg Larsson, whose Millennium trilogy is a runaway worldwide bestseller. One American friend of mine – an academic – told me he was having second thoughts about coming to Stockholm after reading Larsson. I must be careful to keep him away from Midsomer Murders.

The recent election results are grist to the sceptics’ mill. There we go, the right is saying: socialism doesn’t work. But the fact is that for many years it did, or a form of it did; and still does, to a degree. That was Sweden’s value for the rest of us. It proved to the world that there is a practical alternative to the neoliberal orthodoxy. It’s not just a woolly dream, a shining city, an aspiration, an abstract phrase – ‘the Swedish model’. Social democracy exists. It’s still here – just. It might not last much longer, if Socialdemokraterna (the party) don’t pull their socks up. In the meantime, however, it could still be an example for the rest of us. Come over and see it if you don’t believe me. ‘Red Ed’ might be impressed. I’d be happy to show him around.


  • 5 October 2010 at 11:26am
    SJG says:
    The 'rise' of Sverigedemokraten should also be seen in the historical context of the early '90s and the success at that time of Ny Demokrati who, incidentally, had greater success than Sverigedemokraten. I think the economic climate needs to be taken into consideration when explaining the rise of both these parties. Furthermore, let's not forget that the Right has been in power for two terms before (1976 & 1979) so this win for Alliansen is not without precedent.

    More interesting is the growth of Moderaterna and the contraction of SAP. These two parties are reaching a type of parity and we may see the emergence of a two-party system with the other parties acting as peripheral coalition builders.

    [from England by the way]

  • 5 October 2010 at 12:09pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    Hardly anyone responded, apart from a handful with Swedish, Danish and Norwegian email addresses.

    So, what, we don't count?

    • 5 October 2010 at 3:35pm
      For Bernard, an apposite anecdote from Plutarch:

      A man once approached Demosthenes and related how terribly he had been beaten. "But you," said Demosthenes, "suffered nothing of what you tell me." Whereupon the other raised his voice and cried out: "I suffered nothing?" "Now," said Demosthenes, "I hear the voice of somebody who was injured and who suffered."

    • 6 October 2010 at 2:40am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ pinhut
      Ah ha, thanks, Pin. I'm not really suffering so badly, I was probably joking more than anything.

      I've lived in Norway about the same length of time as Bernard's been in Sweden (since '94). I think, Thomas, that the differences between the Scandinavian countries are as important as the parallels, so you might say that Norway is to Sweden as Ireland is to England (including the domination, although that was more lastingly and equitably solved here). I don't speak for the whole of Scandinavia, and I don't think Bernard has claimed to be doing that either.

      So I'll say something about Norway. Kind of like Bernard, I've always been struck by the sophistication of Norwegians to their political system and the policies they can run through it. They very quietly make the US with their checks & balances and consequent tantrums over gun laws, health care and abortion look like the buffoons they really are. Norway has coalitions that work well as governments, the current one is "red-green", the PM is Labour (the old time Labour unions' party), the Finance minister from the Socialist Left party (supported by teachers, students, etc.). It seems to function well. We don't have this neo-nazi right, the most extreme parliamentary right are like right-wing conservatives in England: they want to restrict immigration, but I wouldn't expect them to start gassing anybody, and actually they're more interested in lowering taxes on cars & petrol -- silly stuff like that. I agree with Bernard that the social democratic environment works well here: free health care & education, pretty good safety net for the unemployed, etc. There is a pretty relaxed police force (Oslo police chief is female) & military -- I even like the police's outfits, they look cooler than the Swedes wuth their forage caps.

      How does all this translate into what could be done better in Britain? I'm not sure it's comparable. I mean Britain's population is 60 million and Sweden and Norway are tiny. Norway has a population of 4.5 million, but the distance from Oslo to the north of Norway is the same as from Oslo to Rome -- it's sparsely populated in other words. And incredibly rich. Bernard's saying Sweden's well off; well, Norway uses Swedes for its Gästarbeiter. Norway's handled it's wealth well; there's something called "the oil fund" a mattress where they've squirreled all the money away, the basic tax rate is around 37% and it quickly goes up to 50%. VAT is 25% on most stuff. Cars are unbelievably expensive. (Housing is relatively cheap, due I suppose to the small population). This is all because the nightmare worry is that the oil money will cause inflation. There are no people here as rich as the rich of Britain, Germany, the US -- or of Sweden, for that matter. My only objections to the Norwegian system is that like England there's no separation between church and state and they've got a royal family to supply the head of state. Otherwise it's cool.

    • 6 October 2010 at 2:42am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Sorry, I posted the above, by mistake, without reading it through. I hope you can make sense of it.

    • 6 October 2010 at 7:30am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Makes a lot of sense and confirmed my rather hazy picture of the country. My point was that Bernard Porter should not feel too disadvantaged when Sweden doesn't get into the world headlines - although there's always the Harry Lime tag about Italy - "a thousand years of battles, civil wars, assassinations and what do you get? Michaelangelo, Da Vinci and the Sistine Chapel. Switzerland? Five hundred years of peace and progress and what do you get? The cuckoo clock."

    • 6 October 2010 at 8:32am
      pinhut says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Actually, AJP, my point was that Bernard Porter's disappointment over the response to the first two posts produced a far more passionate restatement of his case as a result.

      "Now I see why Sweden matters..."

    • 6 October 2010 at 8:33am
      pinhut says: @ Geoff Roberts
      It's a nice quote, but the history of Switzerland and its cantons is hardly a story of peace and progress. It was at the centre of much of Europe's religious turmoil, after all.

    • 6 October 2010 at 9:53am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ pinhut
      And a good point it is.

    • 6 October 2010 at 11:31am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ pinhut
      Don't be misled by the Eurovision song contest, the arts in Scandinavia are thriving -- partly because they're well-financed, also because they're well hooked-up internationally nowadays.

  • 5 October 2010 at 12:35pm
    mac says:
    I speak as an Italian who escaped Berlusconi's regime and came to live to Sweden by choice (i.e. not because I got a job or a partner here, but because I considered this a good place to grow up my children). I have been living in Stockholm from too little to have a solid understanding of the meaning of the last electoral results, yet - by comparison with Italy and other countries where I happened to live - there are a few things that struck me:

    1. Despite being one of the countries in Europe with the strongest migration, migration itself was not a point that scored high on the electoral campaign agenda. School, health, unemployment, environment and others were all much more relevant in the debate (Source: STV1).
    This surprised me quite a lot, especially given that already a couple of months prior to elections it appeared clear that SD would have most probably gained seats in the parliament by appealing to the xenophobic feelings of the crowd.
    Whether one believes or not that there is a problem with migration in this country, I would have expected all parties to explain at length their perspective on the issue. Why was not this the case? Is it because Sweden is so deeply social-democrat that it can't even think to consider migration as a "problem" instead of as a "resource"? Is it because no party had good answers to give to those who feel threatened by migrants? Or...? Honestly, I don't know, and I would be interested in knowing what you think.

    2. Young people (If I remember correctly the statistics shown by STV1 concerned voters aged 18-29) were the age group whose vote was more heavily shifted to the left.
    This also means that senior citizens have voted more to the right, and this surprises me because the ones who voted to the right are the one who experienced the great benefits that social democracy brought to Sweden. I might be biased by the horrible state in which youth verses elsewhere, but I would have been less surprised if it had been young people to vote more to the right: after all they did not live through the cold-war era and the great ideological polarisation of that time, and they have been exposed to a lot of USA ideology through TV and other media. In an era in which "free market" appears to be the only credo, I have been pleasantly surprised by the fact young Swedes have voted left. [I do not have statistics available, but my gut feeling is that this is not what happens in most of other western European countries...]

    3. All of the parties who got seats in the parliament have unanimously and immediately after the election proclaimed that there was/is no way in which they might co-operate with the SD. Bipartisan agreements are contrarily being enforced to give as little power as possible to the SD.
    I found this as a great sign of civilisation. It appears to me that in Sweden there is a common understanding that while democracy allows everybody to express their ideas, not all ideas are acceptable as part of the democratic debate. In Italy (but in the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries as well) xenophobic and neo-nazi parties contrarily got credit by other ones just because they got votes. As if a lie repeated enough would turn into a truth.

    Again, I live here from too little to have a clear idea on what the recent election really means. For one I can't really say if the fall of the social-democrats marks the end of an era or just the beginning of a new cycle. Yet - being Sweden the 4th country were I live - I cannot not notice a difference in the way democracy and social justice are rooted in this country and in this people. Is this just an heritage, like a momentum that time will change, or is this a deeply rooted characteristic of this people, something that is going to stay no matter what?

    I do not know, but I too believe that Sweden matters.

  • 5 October 2010 at 2:14pm
    atheodoropoulou says:
    I care about what the political developments in Sweden are. I am soon going to move there from the UK with my husband as immigrants by choice, just like mac who posted above. Reading the Swedish news in combination with the tales of foreigners who ended up in long-term unemployment or underemployment due to alleged discrimination is not exactly making my days happier. However, I continue to be an optimist and trust that Sweden is more democratic than most other countries I could aspire to live in. As for the election results, why should we be so fearful of plural voices if we believe in the strength of our democratic institutions? If there really hasn't been another platform to discuss immigration issues in any shape or form maybe this election result will provide politicians and policy-makers with the perfect opportunity to work towards improving things. There is sufficient transparency in Sweden for the ordinary citizen to know where the political priorities lie. It is up to us now to prove that Sweden is still a country worth living in, the locals by encouraging integration and the newly arrived by working hard to contribute to the society.

  • 5 October 2010 at 2:22pm
    steve.appleton says:
    Yes, Sweden does matter, to me in the UK. But I am not surprised (unduly) by the election results. Sweden was the best example of the post war "social contract". Big business, here as elsewhere, agreed to help pay for welfare and good social provision as a relatively cheap way of staving off potential social conflict.

    But then the Soviet Union collapsed. Agreed, it was a monstrous parody of socialism, but it did at least shout loudly that some kind of alternative to capitalism was possible - and it was armed to the teeth...

    Combined with the rise of neo-liberalism and free-market dominance since the 1980s, capitalist strategists and planners (and their political parties) saw the opportunity to "roll back the frontiers of the state" and put organised labour on the back foot. Why pay to ameliorate the conditions of working people, when we can now simply squeeze them? The leaders of social democracy, and their counterparts in the leadership of the trade union movement (with some honourable exceptions), have no answers - except plaintiveness and pleading for "the good old days". The best they offer for tackling the "Great Recession" is second-hand Keynesianism!

    The glory days of "social democracy" are, I fear, over. As Mr Zizeck has put it (in "First as Tragedy, Then as Farce"), it is time to get serious again about socialism and communism!

  • 5 October 2010 at 3:03pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    I'm a bit confused. Firstly, since when is a count of the posts a guide to the importance of a topic? Then there's this statement about crime levels being lower than in the UK, but criminals are "mollycoddled" - I would have thought that the latter is a consquence of the former.
    I'd suggest that those who live comfortably in Sweden can do so because things work, and it's very seldom that Sweden makes it into the world headlines and that, I think, is a huge plus. As Mac from Italy puts it, he has 'escaped from Berlusconi's Italy' and Italy is always in the news as one disaster follows another. Greece? atheodoropoulou will probably be glad of the contrast to Athens. I think that you probably have a lot of readers - be thankful that Sweden doesn't get into the news that often. Or look at this way, Norway is even less in the headlines - balanced budget, sensible energy policies, excellent schools and all they get is the chance to announce the winner of a Nobel Prize in October.

  • 5 October 2010 at 3:39pm
    atheodoropoulou says:
    Portugal is never on the UK news either (or never used to be before the PIGS stories anyway) but I don't think that is a measure of the perfection of Portuguese society. A more accurate way of understanding the 'functionality' of individual countries would be to look at their own national news. The longer they spend on domestic affairs and the more sinister these are (Italy, Greece) the more discontent there is within these societies. Last time I lived in Sweden I was struck by the virtual non-existence of domestic news. The bulletins would dedicate more time to UK and overseas politics as well as sports (thankfully not just men's football).

    I moved from Greece to the UK in the pre-Olympic 2000 and back then Greece was never on the news either. Don't assume that just because something is not on the BBC it works, the international media will only report when something 'phantasmagoric' happens, like Olympic Games fireworks or riots. Greece had just as many problems back then but British people couldn't understand why I was so willing to swap the sunshine for the perpetual winter. Yes, I am grateful to the UK and Sweden and credit to them for enabling individuals like me to develop and become productive members of the society.

    Oh sorry, I forgot that Portugal was on the news for about a year following the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

  • 5 October 2010 at 6:11pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    I don't think it's about perfection. There is always going to be something for us to moan about, but when a country is often in the news it's not because of the beautiful sunshine and friendly people, it's because of some glitch in the system or a political disaster of some dimension. I don't watch BBC very much. I get most of my information from a number of Internet site, one of which is Open Democracy. ( There's a discussion on Sweden right there.

  • 6 October 2010 at 1:37am
    outofdate says:
    Now about these email addresses: I once had two emails from an LRB blogger thanking me for some scurrilous comment, and I'm not sure that's entirely acceptable. Shouldn't I be pseudonymous to all but a faceless systems administrator in the basement who has no communication with editorial at all?

  • 18 October 2010 at 10:44pm
    roddycam says:
    Unfortunately the British media are focused on the UK and the USA, with the Scandinavian nations coming nowhere. Put this down to their lack of resources, but it is very unfortunate and short-sighted, as reference to what is happening across the North Sea might give us some insight into our own economic and ethnic problems.

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