A couple of years ago, Swedish politics were shaken up by the fresh-faced young Jimmy Åkesson’s Sverigedemokraten getting 5.7 per cent of the parliamentary vote on an anti-immigrant ticket. Now Centerpartiet – traditionally the party of the countryside – has been taken over by another fresh face, Annie Lööf (pronounced ‘lurve’), advocating unlimited immigration. Both are considered to be of the right, but totally opposite rights: the Sweden Democrats nationalistic and chauvinist, the Centre Party just about as ‘new liberal’ as you can get. (This kind of contradiction isn’t unique to the right. The left has its state socialists at one end of the spectrum and anarcho-socialists at the other.)
Lööf’s programme embraces not only free immigration, but also cutting the years of compulsory education, a flat rate of income tax, no limit on how little you can pay workers, and allowing polygamy. It is the last, predictably, that has attracted the most debate, causing her to backtrack on it recently. Other policies you can probably guess at from her first principle, which seems to be the old John Stuart Mill one of individual freedom in anything that doesn’t directly harm others. This is individualist liberalism taken to its logical conclusion – or ad absurdum, if you like. It is the most extreme form of it I’ve come across in a significant politician anywhere; and Lööf is significant, with the job of enterprise minister in the current centre-right coalition government.
It seems very osvensk. Sweden is supposed to be the country of consensus and social democracy, yet here we have the most right-wing (in one sense) politician apparently flourishing. How she and her libertarian allies managed to hijack the old farmers’ party as they did I don’t know, and nor do any of my shocked Swedish friends. Lööf is very young (not yet 30); from a political family in Småland in the south; a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand; and very personally ambitious. The Centre Party has loads of money, after it sold its interest in a newspaper group in 2005. Its change of tack is supposed to have made it more attractive in urban areas. It matches other trends around the world, like the Tea Party movement in the United States. And Sweden has shifted to the right more generally over recent years (though not this far). The Lööf line may also have caught on with younger voters, who feel stifled by the democratic consensus around them and anxious to break out. (Piratpartiet – free music downloads from the internet – was another symptom of this.) Whether it indicates any deeper disillusion with the ‘Swedish model’ – managed capitalism and social welfare – is difficult to say. Admirers of that system, and of its resilience through the recent global troubles, will hope not.
They may be encouraged by recent opinion polls, which show support for the Centre Party sliding to 3.2 per cent (down from 6.6 per cent in 2010) which would not be enough to entitle it to a single parliamentary seat after the next election. As a result it is currently dogged with internal dissension. It would be nice to think that the reason for the decline in its support is that its new programme really is ‘un-Swedish’, though it could just as well be that people are put off by its promise of even more immigrants.