Well, that was a disappointment. For the last couple of weeks, Swedes have been waiting for the results of a new police inquiry into the assassination of Olof Palme in a side street in Stockholm 34 years ago. Even by the standards of political assassinations, Palme’s murder has been more puzzling than most, and more controversial.
It must be spring. New political parties are sprouting all over. Two of the latest are Britain’s millionaire-funded Project One Movement – a provisional title, presumably – and, in Sweden, Alternativ för Sverige, the name obviously a nod to Alternative für Deutschland, formed in Germany in 2014.
Donald Trump’s reference to Sweden at his rally in Florida on 18 February had Stockholmers mildly amused at first. 'We've got to keep our country safe … You look at what's happening in Germany, you look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden! They took in large numbers. They're having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what's happening in Brussels. You look at what's happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris.' He didn’t explicitly say that Sweden was experiencing Islamic terrorism, but that was clearly implied. His reference to ‘last night’ was precise. Swedish journalists tried to find the incident he might have been referring to, but could come up with nothing more exciting than snow-blocked roads in the north, a car chase in Stockholm and a randy elk. No Islamicists were involved. It transpired that Trump had been misled by an item on Fox News – where else? – which had tried to link rising crime in Sweden with its generous asylum policy; but even that turned out to have been a distortion.
Sweden’s relationship with the EU is almost as problematic as Britain’s. It only joined in 1995 – 25 years after the UK – and on the basis of a pretty narrow popular vote. At the same time, Norway voted to stay out. Like the UK, Sweden has spurned the euro. The bigger political parties are all pro-Europe. Sweden used to have a party like Ukip, known as Junilistan (‘June List’), which won 15 per cent of the vote in the 2004 European elections, but has withered away since. A recent opinion poll put its support at 0.3 per cent. There’s also a Folkrörelse (‘People’s Movement’) opposed to EU membership on mainly socialist grounds. The Vänsterpartiet (‘Left Party’, ex-communist) is anti-Europe. The right-wing Sverigedemokraten’s policy is to renegotiate the terms of Sweden’s membership, rather than to leave. The Greens are swithering.
Back in Sweden again. (I travel back and forth.) What strikes me this time is the great contrast between the political and economic mood here and in the UK. Britain is gripped by ‘austerity’, and full of gloom and doom (except for the very rich). More cuts in social provision are promised, hitting the poorest and most disadvantaged, and the NHS is collapsing for want of funds. The government is using the ‘crisis’ to extend privatisation and diminish the state, on what appear to be purely ideological grounds.
‘Obviously, we have reason to be worried,’ the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström, said last November, three days after the attacks in Paris, ‘because there are so many that are being radicalised. Once again, we are brought back to situations like the one in the Middle East, where not least, the Palestinians see that there is not a future.’ Her words were immediately condemned by the Israeli government. But the Israeli ruling coalition had been the first to make the connection. Officials compared the recent ‘wave of anger’ by Palestinians – the random knife attacks that have killed 28 Israelis, while more than 140 Palestinians have been killed in street executions – to the co-ordinated Bataclan massacre; an attempt, and not the first, to tar Palestinians with the Isis brush.
Three years ago there weren’t many beggars on Stockholm’s streets. Some homeless, yes, selling Situation (the Swedish equivalent of the Big Issue), a few buskers in the Tunnelbana; but not men and women huddled in doorways, wrapped in blankets – it’s well below freezing here now – with stories of sick children, homelessness and hunger scrawled on squares of cardboard beside them, and paper coffee cups for passers-by to put coins into, or not. This is new. It’s a shock for someone who’s been coming to Sweden for years, always impressed by the absence of obvious signs of poverty, only too familiar in the UK and elsewhere in Western Europe, but relieved in Sweden by the generous welfare safety net. It seems so very osvensk.
Yesterday, following the debate – or rather non-debate – on the European Arrest Warrant in the House of Commons, and the press commentary on it, I was surprised that the Julian Assange case wasn’t cited as one of the more contentious instances of the warrant’s use.
Sweden has always had a problem with Russians and the sea. You can see why when you visit the Stockholm Archipelago and learn about the days when whole islands were set on fire by Russian invaders in the 18th century. Covered with fir trees and little wooden houses, they are very combustible. Whole towns were burned down. It was called a ‘terror’ campaign. Against this, Sweden’s eastern defences are not too impressive. The story is told of the Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke that he laughed ‘only twice in his life: once when he heard of the death of his mother-in-law, and then when he visited Waxholm.’ Waxholm fort was supposed to be Stockholm’s outer defence.
In 1999, Sweden passed a law that made it a crime to buy sexual services, but not to sell them. It was the first law of its kind in the world, and is now sometimes referred to as ‘the Swedish model’. The Swedish government has been keen to export it. In 2009, Norway and Iceland adopted equivalent legislation. France passed a similar law at the beginning of December, and there have been calls for the UK to do likewise, not least since last month’s raids on sex workers’ flats in Soho.
Hannes Råstam’s Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer was translated into English earlier this year. We can highly recommend it for any fan of Nordic noir. Thomas Quick trumps any of Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson’s villains, with more than thirty victims to his name: boys, girls, women, old men, blacks, whites; slaughtered all over Sweden and Norway (and one in Finland) between 1964 and the early 1990s, by knifing, clubbing, strangulation or suffocation; sometimes raped (both sexes); dismembered; and in one case cannibalised. He was tried for eight of the murders, and found guilty of all of them, serving his sentences in Säter psychiatric prison in Dalarna. He puts British ‘rippers’ in the shade. Except that he doesn’t. Because he almost certainly didn’t commit any of these crimes. He was formally pardoned for the last of them a few months ago.
Julian Assange’s latest piece of evidence that the extradition case against him is part of an American-Swedish plot doesn’t amount to much. Assuming he’s not making it up (which is unlikely), it simply tells us that someone at GCHQ – we don’t yet know who – believed it was a ‘fit-up’ because the ‘timings are too convenient’. Nothing solid here, and nothing from either of the horses’ mouths. So it doesn’t take us much further.
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.)
First, a number of disclaimers. I’m not an uncritical admirer of Julian Assange, especially in relation to what he has admitted he has done – quite apart from the criminal allegations against him – in his personal life. In brief, he seems to me to be a bit of a cad. Beyond that, I have no opinion as to his legal guilt or otherwise. I’m also not entirely in favour of WikiLeaks’ activities. I think you need to preserve diplomatic confidentiality in many areas. To qualify this, however, I’m not terribly disturbed – or impressed – by most of the ‘revelations’ in the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010, few of which can reasonably be thought to threaten any nation’s security. (Dignity and reputation a little, perhaps. That’s no bad thing.) On the other side, I’m certainly not anti-Swedish. I live there much of the time, and consider its political, economic and social institutions far superior to Britain’s. Recent events have led me to question the fairness of Sweden’s judicial processes, a view shared by a number of Swedes; but that should be put in the context of my overall Swedophilia. Lastly, I’m not a ‘conspiracy theorist’ – this in relation to suspicions that the whole Assange affair was a put-up job by the CIA – although, having worked in this area (the history of ‘counter-subversion’), I would never dismiss the possibility of any ‘conspiracy’ out of hand. I hope that’s clear. The Assange affair really is a very curious one.
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.
Nobelprisdag is a special day in Sweden. Stockholm city centre stops while the prizewinners are shunted from the Grand Hotel to the Concert House for the awards, then on to the City Hall for the dinner, followed by the laureates’ speeches, and a ball. All this is fully covered on Swedish television, preceded by the Peace Prize ceremony relayed from Oslo. It starts on SVT2 at midday, and goes on into the small hours.
Sweden isn’t Norway, and relations between the two countries aren’t as sisterly as outsiders might assume. But of course there’s wall-to-wall coverage of recent events here – 27 pages of Saturday’s Expressen, and SVT2 relaying NRK’s live reporting 24 hours a day – and immense sympathy. From pictures of it, Utøya could well be an island in the Stockholm Archipelago, like the one I’m writing from now. There’s enormous admiration in Sweden for the way the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, has responded to the atrocity. Also, the reluctance of the authorities and local media to jump to the conclusion that it was the work of Islamists – despite a (supposed) Islamist website immediately claiming ‘credit’ for it.
Yesterday’s Dagens Nyheter carried an article by two leading Swedish lawyers on the Assange extradition case. ‘Assange’s criticism of Sweden is right on several points,’ the headline says. There’s a report on it in English here. Their criticisms centre on (a) the lack of a jury system in Sweden (verdicts are arrived at by a judge flanked by two party appointees); (b) the fact that accused people awaiting trial are kept in prison for months, without bail, and often in solitary confinement (the European Court has already condemned Sweden for this); and (c) the fact that in some cases (such as rape) trials can be held in secret.
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.
Yesterday I voted in my first Swedish election – not for the parliament, as I’m only a resident, not a citizen, but for my Kommun, and for the local health authority. It was held in our neighbourhood school. There was a stall outside selling coffee, sandwiches and buns, staffed by the schoolchildren and their parents. You get the same sort of thing if you deliver your tax return in person to Skattehuset on the deadline; almost a carnival atmosphere, with hot dog stalls and the like. People were sitting around in the autumn sun discussing how they had voted; I don’t ever remember seeing that in England. This was social citizenship on display. Maybe it’s why Sweden regularly gets turnouts of over 80 per cent (around 83 per cent this time).
If you’ve had nothing but the British (or, I imagine, American) press to go by these last few weeks, you can be forgiven for being hardly aware that a general election is brewing in Sweden. Perhaps the newspapers don’t think it’s important; or that an election there can make much difference to the social democratic consensus that has dominated the country, virtuously but boringly, for years. Visiting the various party booths on Sergelstorg in the centre of Stockholm – almost identical little kiosks (can you get them from IKEA?) staffed by clean young political clones – it is difficult to think of it in terms of a contest at all. Posters carry portraits of smiling party leaders with anodyne slogans against pastel backgrounds. The television coverage is ubiquitous, but polite and low-key.
Sweden starts to wind down about now, preparing for the short – but glorious – summer. So, not much excitement over the European elections here. The quality dailies carried some serious articles on them, of course, but that's just the political class. A few party posters appeared, very late, all almost identical (just faces), and in pastel shades. Swedes have always been ambivalent, at best, about the EU, joining it very late (1995), resisting the euro, and endlessly carping about the way Brussels seems to want to interfere with their cherished customs, like the state liquor-store monopoly, snus (vile little cushions of tobacco you put between your bottom lip and your gum), paying immigrant workers decent wages, and – well – democracy generally.
Jenny Turner recently wrote in the LRB about Stephenie Meyer's series of vampire novels and the film based on the first of them, Twilight. '"I wish I could be a vampire," I actually said out loud at one point.' It's a sentiment few people are likely to express after seeing Tomas Alfredson's beautiful and disturbing Låt den rätte komma in, which goes on general release in the UK today as Let the Right One In. It's set in a suburb of Stockholm in the winter of 1982. Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), an ethereal blond 12-year-old, the only child of separated and neglectful parents, is being bullied at school.