By Jonathan Power
December 9th 2014
“If all the world were like Sweden there would be no news to report. The last time that Sweden hit the front page was when its foreign minister, Anna Lindh, was knifed to death by a madman nine years ago on the eve of a referendum on Swedish entry into the Euro zone. The time before that was in the distant past.” – from a column I wrote just a couple of years ago.
But now, to everyone’s surprise – both inside and outside Sweden – this quietness of the news has been unexpectedly overturned. A newly elected Socialist government, thanks to the vote of the Swedish Democrats, an anti-immigrant and anti-European party, couldn’t pass its budget and so the prime minister has called for new elections in March. Voters are wondering aloud what has happened to the famed Swedish stability and consensus-making.
Sweden is probably the most successful country in the world – that is if you factor in not just national income, but combined averages in the longevity of its people, female equality, low infant mortality and high levels of education. A study by Professor Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University which measures the kind of creativity most useful to business – talent, technology and tolerance – puts Sweden number one in Europe and ahead of the US.
Swedes have consciously chosen not to take the Anglo-Saxon road. They accept they have one of the lowest after tax pay envelopes in the Western world. Moreover, Swedes would rather take long holidays and a short workweek than push up the national income figures. Nevertheless, over the last 12 years, Sweden has been the best performing economy in the Western world, bar Norway (with its oil) and Switzerland. Its present growth rate, although low, is better than almost every other European country.
To understand the Swedes fully one must consider its urge for solitude and separateness. If one walks down the out-of-the-way, dirt track that led me to the shores of the Baltic on the island of Faro one will come, hidden both by forest and the unwillingness of the local people to divulge its whereabouts, to the house of the famed film maker, the late Ingmar Bergman.
For a lifetime Bergman chronicled the Swedish soul, its solitariness, its obsessiveness and its melancholia, a trait he shared with other Swedish artistic geniuses – it’s in the poetry of the recent Nobel Literature prize winner Transtromer, the music of Stenhammar, the paintings of Zorn and the writings of Strindberg and Dagerman.
Maybe it is this – plus the long, dark, grey winters – that will succeed in keeping Sweden partially cut off from Europe and thus separate from its more vicious tides of anti-social behavior, including racism. Despite its successes at least half its population prefers to be a step apart. Swedish voters turned their back on the Euro. This is the European country that along with France loves itself the most and is comfortable in its old ways.
If you want to understand Sweden you have to understand its Lutheran heritage. Whilst Church attendance except at Christmas and Easter is extraordinarily low, probity is in the Swedish soul. Honesty in business is one reason why Swedish firms shine abroad. A handshake seals a deal. Rarely is an idea over sold. Bills are paid on time.
Despite that, the country has an adventurous spirit of outreach.
Sweden has more multinational corporations per head than any other country and state-owned enterprises barely exist. Sweden, the socialist state, has pioneered private competition in a range of endeavours from railways, to hospital management, to schools. Refugees, who make up nearly all the immigrant total, have been welcomed generously – in per capita terms Sweden is more welcoming than any other country in Europe.
Now as Syrians (who receive immediate permanent residence including the right to work and draw social benefits) and Eritreans pour in, it is seeing the numbers of refugees climb fast. They choose Sweden as their favoured destination in Europe.
The Swedes have been called the Japanese of Europe – the consensual society where disputes are talked out even if its takes hours, days and months. The idea of the adversarial debate, whether it be in parliament or the courtroom is regarded as uncivilised. This is why the fall of the government comes as such a shock. Why did the parties of the conservative opposition allow the tail to wag the dog?
By not abstaining on the budget vote which would have been the sensible thing to do they in effect went into a de facto alliance with the Swedish Democrats, the right wing anti-immigrant and anti-EU party.
It is a grave miscalculation. It could well backfire, enabling the still small Swedish Democrats to increase their vote in March, probably at the expense of the more conservative parties. All being well the Social Democrats will win and bring back stability.
Until then this is not the Sweden we know.
Copyright: Jonathan Power.