Why Sweden Matters
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.