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Sweden’s Turn for the WorseAlan Brownjohn
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Vol. 13 No. 19 · 10 October 1991

Sweden’s Turn for the Worse

Alan Brownjohn

2133 words

The young man from the Russian Republic who had come to the Stockholm election wake had also, rather surprisingly, witnessed the final days of the Walton by-election in Liverpool. ‘Well, I am confused,’ he replied bemusedly to the obvious question. ‘I thought democracy was one style, and it is many.’ He would not be drawn on which he preferred, or on whether anything he had seen in the West could be adapted to his own circumstances. He was still digesting the differences between British and Swedish elections, from the door-step activity at the grass roots all the way up to the manner in which campaigns are presented and reported on television.

The first sign of a triennial Swedish general election is a sudden rush of political home-building in public places. Since the date is fixed – always the third Sunday in September – the parties are well-prepared, and from early August they are busy constructing their outdoor committee rooms. Each one is a bright new pinewood hut, something like an ostentatiously handsome garden shed, housing a table, chairs, shelves, a telephone, trunkloads of election materials – and a representative who will argue his case volubly, and perhaps offer coffee or one of the party sweets manufactured specially for the campaign.

The big indoor rally has almost disappeared from Swedish elections, and the calm, almost casual treatment of election news on television (as distinct from the formalised party debates) does not encourage the staging of media spectaculars. Recently one special kind of small outdoor meeting has become an expected ritual. Two party speakers each take a hand microphone, position themselves a few metres apart, and conduct an energetic double act to draw a crowd. If a crowd does form (usually in a decorous circle not too near to the orators) a microphone will be offered to someone, with an invitation to join in the dialogue.

As often as not, this results in a flood of eloquence or anger which is heard with patience and answered with good temper, without the roughness of British political interchange, the heckling and the suppression of hecklers. It is common to see political rivals – a cabinet minister and his shadow, for example – conducting a vigorous open-air session in a shopping precinct. All very well-mannered, the essence of Nordic politeness? Yes, but also curiously intent and passionate, the sign of a quietly thorough political interest: much more social life centres on political parties and their off-shoot organisations than in Britain. A shudder of concern went through the Swedish media when as few as 85 per cent bothered to vote in this year’s election (compare that with 75 per cent in Britain in 1987 and a little over 50 per cent in the last American Presidential election). About half the population of Sweden watched the grand final of the campaign, the television debate in which leaders of eight political parties made their final appeal to voters. Positions at the two long tables in the studio, allocated by drawing lots, were uncomfortably close. The Green and the Conservative, the Count representing the new Right and the building worker who leads the refurbished, ex-Communist Left Party, literally rubbed shoulders. The Social Democrats, as the governing party (with more to answer for), had two representatives They found themselves sitting not in the centre, to which they are accused of drifting, but out on the edge.

In a way impossible to imagine of British politicians, everyone kept to the simple ground rules and submitted to the discipline of the chairman: Olle Stenholm, in the hot seat, said or did nothing at all on his own account – no leading questions in the style of Sir Robin, no Paxmanite raised eyebrows. His job, performed perfectly, was to instruct (no, not invite) speakers to answer each other; and monitor to the second the share of time they were taking. ‘Answer that in 28 seconds, Bengt Westerberg,’ he coolly told the Liberal leader at one point; and rapped the table when Westerberg finished his last sentence on 32.

This year, with what seemed like fine, old-fox cunning, the Social Democrats fielded dry, fatherly authority in the person of Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, offset by the youthful freshness of Mona Sahlin, the charismatic 33-year-old Employment Minister who could easily be leading the Party (and the Government?) by the end of the Nineties. She had every trick in the book, and every statistic. ‘You are trying to hide behind my skirts,’ she told the Centre Party leader, Olof Johansson, who had been a bit cagey on welfare policy, ‘and I warn you, they are very short!’ According to the telephone polls taken by the evening newspapers, she wiped the floor with all the opposition.

For all that, when Swedes went to the polls in what has to be the most meticulously fair electoral system in the world, they dismissed the Social Democrats, and translated their contradictory reasons for doing so into atrocious electoral luck and abundant confusion. The result was the one most dreaded by all the traditional parties: the balance between the Centre-Right and the Centre-Left, two implacably opposed blocs, was held by the most unpredictable of newcomers, a seven-month old party of the Right which has yet to define what it is for itself (their representatives sitting in the pinewood huts had often been party members for as little as a few days).

The valvaka, the election wake, is the traditional, nervously cheerful drinks party which spans the ever-diminishing period between the closing of the polls and the arrival of the first computer predictions on television. On election night the cameras never go to the counts, which are in any case formidably complex, lacking in personality interest in the large, multi-member constituencies, and dependent on the opening of huge quantities of postal votes. They visit the wake at each party head-quarters, and chart with dreadful accuracy the rising or sinking spirits. With the increasing infallibility of the computers the prevailing mood sets in early.

By about ten-thirty on the night of 15 September it was clear that Swedes had voted for a shift to the right: but done so with something worse than their customary reluctance to provide their ‘bourgeois’ party bloc with enough seats to replace the ‘socialist’ parties. Twenty-five seats and the balance (with a mere 6.7 per cent of the votes) had been presented to New Democracy. No other party was prepared to say it could co-operate with them. With an astonishing, unprecedented display of political disdain, the leaders of the Liberal, Centre and Christian Democrat parties walked out of the TV studio when the representatives of the New Democrats arrived; only Carl Bildt, the Conservative leader, remained behind. ‘Can we go now?’ Westerberg was heard to mutter. Next day he explained that he had not been prepared to sit on the same sofa with the new party ‘and look like a kind of government’.

New Democracy is an unpleasant child of the Swedish recession and right-wing impatience with the gradualist style of Swedish politics. Founded by Count Ian Wachtmeister, an aristocratic industrialist, and Bert Carlsson a pleasure-garden entrepreneur, it has set out to be the ‘fun’ party of public clowning, pop concerts and relaxed liquor laws. It has some appeal to those who cannot take complicated discussion and want their politics simple, though how many of those it persuaded to abandon the ‘stay-at-home party’ and vote for ‘Ian and Bert’ is not clear. Its background is the campaign activity of free enterprise organisations like the New Welfare Society, a rightwing think-tank supported by several members of the employers’ federation

According to Sture Nordh, chairman of the large local government officer’ union, which stands to lose badly if anyone in a future government takes the New Democrats’ opinions of officials seriously (not a likely outcome), the employers began backing away from the new party when the racist implications of their statements became clear. Racist sentiment was not expressed as directly as it is by openly anti-immigrant groups in south Sweden (where one egregious figure gained over 6 per cent, much the same as the New Democrats nationally; 12 per cent of local support would have given him a seat in the Riksdag). The tactic is to insist: we want immigrants who will work hard – perhaps people from the Baltic states? – and if they have somewhere to live, we will give them a loan, and a work permit. If they commit crimes they should, of course, be deported. We think it a scandal that many retired Swedes have less to live on than some present immigrants, that unemployment has been so high among young men.

The New Democrats also make the essential routine gestures towards the family and the environment. Is this unsavoury mixture what the politics of ‘fun’ means to disillusioned young Swedish conservatives and Social Democrats (who provided Ian and Bert with 34 per cent and 28 per cent of their votes respectively)? It looks like a Poujadism for the Nineties, not Rock against Racism but Rock for the Free Market. Its style is coarse. Bert Carlsson earned a sharp rebuke from the Swedish Speaker for getting inside the Riksdag chamber the morning after he was elected and having himself photographed with thumbs up and feet up.

The parliamentary stance of his fellow New Democrat MPs, Sweden’s own Essex men, is impossible to forecast. Strangers to each other, they do not look as if they can hold together as a disciplined group. But they would make uncomfortable companions for the orthodox Right if they broke up in frustration and tried to shift across and join the Conservatives. Too many conversions of that kind would alienate the smaller parties on whom Carl Bildt, the likely new Conservative prime minister, depends, and make a daunting task impossible.

Only three of the 23 New Democrat MPs are women, and the election showed sharp gender divisions. Sixty-three per cent of the New Democrats’ voters were male, 60 per cent of support for the Greens (but they lost all then seats in parliament) came from women. For the first time in their 27 year existence (except for a deal with the Centre Party which allowed them one member in 1985) the Christian Democrats entered parliament, with seven women MPs out of 26 and 57 per cent of their voters female. Those voters tended to be older than average. The success of the Christian Democrats, less brash and exhibitionistic than New Democracy, almost certainly more solid than the success of Wachtmeister and Carlsson (‘the Count and his Servant’), reveals the revived strength of an opposite, puritan tendency in Swedish life and politics. Most of their MPs are proclaimed Evangelical churchmen and women, devoted to the cause of the family and morality; there was no alcohol at their election wake. So 6.7 per cent of Swedes voting for a New Right of entrepreneurial razzmataz was balanced by 7 per cent who chose a middle-aged Right of cleanliness and godliness.

Not nearly enough of the Swedish electorate (only a total of 31.1 per cent) voted for the ‘New Start’ programme proposed jointly by the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the hope that they could capture an outright majority (the Social Democrats ended up with a better-than-expected 37.6 per cent, but the hopes of their opposition were born when polls put the ‘Sossies’ as low as the high twenties). ‘New Start’ offered whole-hearted EC membership, tax cuts, economies in the public sector, privatisation, and a continuation of nuclear power (currently scheduled to be phased out altogether by 2010). Did some voters believe they could have elements of all this from the Social Democrats anyway, with the benefit of the Sossies’ humanitarian concern and without running the risk of inexperienced and unstable minority governments? If so, such pragmatists were not numerous enough to keep the old governing party in power. Now everyone is promised what, presumably, no one wanted: months of endless manoeuvring to prop up two, three or four-party minority administrations.

Swedish socialists will now have to find answers to two questions. One of them is ringing in the ears of democratic socialist parties everywhere: what exactly do you do when you find yourselves in a world where there is no one over there on your left, against whom you can shine out as examples socialist moderation and common sense?

The second question is specific to the Swedish Social Democratic movement. Still the best-organised left-wing movement in the democratic world, it has nevertheless seen a gradual loosening of the ties which once bound together the Party and its press, the trade unions (blue and white-collar), the People’s Houses in every township, the co-ops and the education centres, the women’s and the youth organisations, into an unbeatable electoral machine. Can the Party restore the Structural unity and the ideological conviction which made it the natural and the only credible governing party in Sweden for nearly six decades?

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Vol. 13 No. 22 · 21 November 1991

Alan Brownjohn’s smug and superficial report on Sweden’s recent election was distressing (LRB, 10 October). Is this how we must be made to appear before the world? A threnody for the apparent downfall of yet another socialist vanguard society was perhaps to be expected from the LRB, but I can hardly recognise the country he claims to have visited, much less the electoral climate he describes.

How did he manage to miss the point so completely? Well, he seems to have spent a lot of time watching television, never a smart thing to do if you hunger for complex knowledge, and to have listened with pious attention to the likes of Sture Nordh, ‘chairman of the large local government officers’ union’ – a decent enough chap, I’m told, but clearly bound by his oath of office to desire nothing but the same procedure as last year, only lots more of it.

So what is the point? Quite simply this: the welfare state, as pioneered by Sweden and applauded by the world, is ceasing to function, and there is no way that eight million Swedes can go on paying for what’s become of it. Taxes can’t be raised any further but will, in fact, have to be lowered (a process actually initiated under the Social Democrats), to help Swedish industry recover its productivity and to discourage the amazing spread of corrupt fringe benefits, tax evasion and plain stealing. Such taxes as will be collectable can be expected to keep the welfare machinery in place and ticking over, civil servants and local government employees can probably count on salaries being met and consciousness-raising seminars paid for: but the supposed product of it all, the actual tiresome welfare, which has been getting very shoddy, will become shoddier still, in some areas more or less extinct. The dream is dying. Horrible reality looms. People fear having to go into hospital, fear being mugged in the streets, fear asking their children what they are taught in school, fear their children, fear growing old and helpless.

I might offer myself as a case in point. I was born in 1934 and when I was a kid in school during the war there wasn’t a lot of welfare around, but then my parents didn’t pay a lot of taxes either. As I grew older, the welfare state got going, sorting out a number of things that certainly needed sorting out; and just about when it went into overdrive I graduated into taxpaying, and I have continued to pay my entire working life, at increasingly confiscatory levels. I have been doing this, if not gladly, then at least in the expectation that promises made along the way would be kept. In my old age I would be getting what I had paid for, right? So shut up.

I now expect to retire in not so many years – and where, I wonder, are the massive funds to pay for my various retirement needs and benefits? The official proclamation hasn’t been made yet, it will probably take some time to come up with the proper market-oriented disguise, but the bitter knowledge has nevertheless begun to percolate through the system: the funds are just not going to be there. The Pyramid Game is reaching its predestined end. It was all just a con, and my generation is the crucially conned one. We shall have to pay all over again, to the smooth entrepreneurs that are now oozing out of the woodwork (this is being ideologised as ‘privatisation’), or hope to be taken on by some privately-funded benevolent association. Yes, ‘charity’ is making a big comeback, ideologically at least, cheered on by spokesmen for the Apparat who would prefer to spend what tax monies may remain on projects dearer to their hearts than the care and feeding of me and the other dummies in our declining years. Some version of this rather fundamental angst would have been told to Alan Brownjohn by just about every Swede from the obeying classes, if he had bothered to ask what we were worried about instead of just assuming that Sweden’s only current moral problem is how to keep the socialist banners flying in the increasingly adverse winds of world politics.

Worries such as these, obviously, were what put the New Democrats and the Christian Democrats into Parliament and gave the Conservatives a chance, if a rather meagre one, to grab the rings of power. I carry no brief for the New Democrats, painted by Brownjohn in the demonic colours dear to every Swedish power-broker and bureaucrat. Organising rapidly from scratch, they have indeed fielded some rather unappetising people. Bert Karlsson (sic), the party co-founder, is a bit of an ass, and asses will bray: but it isn’t immediately clear to me, as it must be to Brownjohn when he echoes the ‘stern rebuke’ of the pompous Speaker (now ex-, by the way), that Karlsson’s first obligation, having been elected on a stridently anti-Establishment platform, should have been to kowtow to that woolly symbol of our Establishment, the Riksdag. All important decisions are taken elsewhere, its debates are a joke (why do you think we admire Britain’s Parliamentary proceedings, available on cable television, so much?), party wheelhorses traditionally fill its seats. So why shouldn’t Karlsson put his feet up? It’s about all the place seems to be good for. A dose of coarseness might even be morally preferable to the miasma of log-rolling, pay-offs and bien-pensant rhetoric which has taken the place of politics.

To the undercurrent of despair caused by the accelerating decay of the fabled welfare system has recently been added another, intensifying factor which Brownjohn hasn’t deigned to notice. We’ve been seeing socialism lose its bearings – but we’ve also been given a good long look at the unacceptable face of capitalism: the financial merry-go-round of overheated property speculation which gave such a very special stench to the late Eighties. This will enter history as a scandal on a scale comparable to the Savings and Loans mess in the United States.

Those pillars of society, the bankers – never averse to telling me fatly how to manage my life and how to invest my tiny all – really proved to have rather less sense than Bingo ladies. On the assumption that property values would go up and up and up, for ever, they handed out billions of badly-secured loans to facilitate the speculations of a number of non-producing sharks and asset-strippers. When, strangely, property values didn’t keep rising, the recession forcing them down instead, the speculators found themselves unable to pay the banks what they owed on their multiplying acquisitions. These gentlemen, I am pleased to report, are now going down the drain one after the other (though the occasional million may well have been salted away abroad where the cops and the taxmen are unlikely to stumble over it), and the most incompetent banks have taken gigantic losses. It was on the news the other day that we may be talking about some sixty billion crowns, which will have to be found or at least somehow guaranteed by the state – i.e. the long-suffering taxpayer – because you can’t let the banking system collapse, can you? Is it a wonder that a climate of mistrust, irresponsibility and greed is growing like cancer? That immigrants and refugees – blameless as the great majority certainly are, guilty as some of them equally certainly are of adding their own piquant strands to our lush homegrown repertoire of criminality, corruption and sloth – will be victimised by eruptions caused by our national psychosis? We Swedes have been lying to each other for too long about too many things. Who can be sure any more what the truths are?

I am not, as may be reasonably clear by now, a socialist. Do I, then, expect great things from the coalition government now in power? Not really. The opposition parties managed to make a sad hash of things in 1976. The brave pre-election words of the Conservatives are now being eaten daily, to keep a four-party government performing under a Conservative prime minister, Carl Bildt. The real and possibly disruptive priorities of the Liberal, Centre and Christian Democrat partners haven’t yet emerged. Bengt Westerberg, the nice, possibly over-nice Liberal leader, is now the Minister of Social Affairs and obviously hasn’t a clue how to go about dismantling the system that brought him forth. As for Olof Johansson, the Centre leader – but no, I won’t even try to explain Johansson or to forecast his actions.

I should think that Alan Brownjohn may rest easy. In just a few years he can come back and have another pleasant visit with Sture Lundh and Mona Sahlin, short skirts and all. It is to be hoped that there will be enough left in the till to pay for their lunch, as they get together to rejoice in the staying-power of socialism in Sweden.

Göran Bengtson
Stockholm

Vol. 14 No. 1 · 9 January 1992

Abroad when it was printed, I have only just seen Göran Bengtson’s long letter (Letters, 21 November 1991) concerning my piece on the Swedish General Election (LRB, 10 October 1991). Mr Bengtson says he cannot recognise his Sweden in my report. I barely recognise my report in his letter. He does spot one slip: the New Democrat MP Bert Karlsson indeed spells his name with a ‘K’ and not a ‘C’. Mea culpa. I’d seen it tediously often during the campaign and I still mistyped it. But mostly Bengtson is using my article as a peg on which to hang one of his own, a straightforward alternative slant on the election events.

That’s fair, and we’ve all done it. But he sinews his thesis with some fairly disagreeable asides and purple passages which render his arguments steadily less attractive. ‘Smug’ and ‘superficial’ are allowable snorts against an article one dislikes, but is it just ‘demonic’ to feel anxious, in view of the resurfacing of the Far Right in several European countries, about the New Democrats’ views on race and immigration? I cited what I heard from the lips of party spokesmen and party workers. I could have quoted uglier statements. Bengtson himself makes one when he writes of ‘immigrants and refugees … adding their own piquant strands to our lush homegrown repertoire of criminality, corruption and sloth’. I do find that, with its implication that immigrants introduce new and different varieties of problem that are somehow intrinsic to their foreignness, quite remarkably unpleasant. Elsewhere, he applauds the spectacle of the newly-elected Mr Karlsson gaining admittance to the Riksdag building and getting himself snapped for the front page of Expressen, grinning with his feet up in an empty chamber. This was a small incident, yet the outgoing Speaker, Mr Thage Peterson (famously unassuming and respected, not simply ‘pompous’), was surely right to rebuke the culprit. I would have thought that disrespect for legislatures from the populist Right (imagine the same behaviour from British or German party equivalents in Westminster or Bonn) would carry a slightly sour taste for someone of Bengtson’s generation, which is also my own generation. But he believes that ‘it’s about all the place seems to be good for. A dose of coarseness would be morally preferable.’

His purplest passage is reserved for the problems Sweden’s welfare state now faces (would face under any government). Swedes were certainly worried about the future of their welfare provision (some were particularly anxious about creeping privatisation), but I found no one who offered Bengtson’s nightmare vision. First I had to pinch myself to realise this was Sweden rather than, say, Ceausescu’s Romania; then recognised a bad case of the Doomsday rhetoric employed by some on the Swedish right to lump together the social democratic model and the broken tyrannies of Eastern Europe. This is coarser stuff than Mr Karlsson’s clowning, and no contribution at all to a debate which deserves calm and logic if economic priorities are to be settled in a period of political confusion.

On a more personally serious note Bengtson (‘b. 1934’) maintains that ‘the funds are just not going to be there’ for welfare provision by the time he retires. Nothing is less predictable than European politics in the Nineties, and the best actuarial calculations can be shaken by events. All the same, I find this scenario of bankruptcy and destitution (written and rewritten by the Swedish Right since the Thirties) very hard to take.

Alan Brownjohn
London NW3

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