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.
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.