One of the most intractable problems in British politics is voters’ perception that they should be enjoying a Scandinavian standard of public services while only paying American levels of tax. No wonder governments get into debt as they struggle to balance the books.
The solution, of course, is to decentralise so that what voters get is a better match for what they’re prepared to fund. Within Scandinavia itself though, decentralisation has not, so far, been as great a favourite with the major parties as it might. At the heart of Scandi social democracy is the idea that everyone is equal. And, therefore, the non sequitur follows that everything must be the same. As in Jacobin France, all political templates are equal, but some are definitely more equal than others.
Sweden makes an interesting case study. OECD statistics show that, in 2010, public spending was 34.8% of GDP in the UK and 45.5% in Sweden. In the UK, locally raised taxes amounted to 1.7% of GDP and nationally raised taxes to 26.2%, while in Sweden the local figure was 16.1% and the national figure 23.7%. (The balance is accounted for by social security funds like National Insurance.) The lesson seems to be that if folk know that the money they pay to keep society from falling apart is raised and spent where they can see it being raised and spent then they’ll be more supportive of the idea. Even in the USA, where public spending was only 24.8% of GDP, the local figure was 3.9%, more than double the figure in the UK.
In Sweden’s case the results of local spending are immediately evident to the visitor in a very well-kept environment. There’s a county-based public transport system (Swedish counties being of regional scale), delivered by private contractors but to the county’s specification and livery. Besides buses, this can include regional railways, trams and ferries, with timed tickets interchangeable between modes. Look out for the bus shelters changing to a different design and the buses turning a different colour and you’ll know you’ve crossed the county boundary. In such small, symbolic ways, local identity is made manifest even in a globalised economy.
Nonetheless, there is something rotten in the state of Sweden. The long shadow of half-a-century of social democratic rule has left it as perhaps the most totalitarian society in western Europe. Stories abound of children seized by social services for parents’ minor infractions of the rules of political correctness. Governments of the Left were still practising eugenics and forced sterilisation in the 1970s; in 1932 the Swedish State Institute of Race Biology at Uppsala was publishing studies of the Sami to proclaim how inferior they were and promote their sterilisation.
The Sami have had a hard time all round. Centuries of persecution for being different, then patronising policies to ensure that ‘the Lapps will remain Lapps’, depriving them of the technological means to function politically in the modern world. And at last some limited recognition with the creation in 1993 of Sweden’s Sami Parliament, a consultative body which also has equivalents in Norway and Finland, and then in 2000 official minority status for their language.
The Sami remain as a distinct people because of their relationship to the land and to the nomadic occupations it provides. At this point, Sweden’s accommodating approach hits the rocks. Folklore and costumes are fine – accurate or inaccurate – and good for tourism, but natural resources are the common property of all Swedes. Development policies have introduced roads, railways, hydro-electric schemes and managed forestry that have all played havoc with reindeer herding. The alternatives of fishing and hunting have been curtailed by the Swedish State’s confiscation of Sami land rights. Demands that indigenous people provide proof of title to support their claims to State property turn reality on its head: the truth is that indigenous people belong to the land, not the other way round, but either way they’re a unit.
There’s talk of expanding the Sami Parliament’s role to include land management but for radicals it’s not enough to be allowed to manage a heritage they’re not allowed to own. For some Sami, a Swedish identity – or a Norwegian, Finnish or Russian one – is something to cling to, a second string to the bow. For others, the battle to preserve the Sami language in the face of past attempts to suppress it remains a painful memory, ‘the Sami sore’, and for those who regard that history as reason enough to mistrust Stockholm nothing less than a separate Sameland will do.
The treatment of the Sami shows how repressive the parties of the Left can be when everything lines up for them. Unbroken rule for 40 years. Under a doctrine of national unity – folkhemmet (‘the people’s home’) – that embodied a real enough sense of community but allowed for no differentiation. And all set in a country that used to be one of the most aggressive on earth. Sweden’s glory days ended in the early 18th century when the cost of an all-conquering army could no longer be sustained. In the previous century it dominated the Baltic and northern Germany and even had a colony in North America: New Sweden, today’s Delaware and Pennsylvania. For all the protests about laid-back Swedes, such a legacy is bound to linger.
Psychologically, there’s probably nowhere else in Europe that provides such an instructive parallel to the UK, as the UK continues its own transition into post-imperial self-justification. Last at war in 1814, and so never forced fundamentally to modernise its self-image, Sweden also shares with the UK a tendency to refer to the heartland of Europe as ‘the continent’, something from which both consider themselves detached.
The similarity shows too in the absence of a regional dimension to Sweden’s constitution, though as in the UK there have been moves to regionalise, badly, ignoring readily available historical precedents. Sweden has been attempting to negotiate the merger of its 21 counties into 6 or 9 regions, following the pattern of a similar centralisation implemented in Denmark in 2007. Since 1999 three Swedish counties have been designated as regions on a trial basis, with additional powers devolved to them. Since it’s only a trial, they’re assured of nothing.
Nationalists and regionalists should note that bureaucracies under pressure always centralise, even if letting go would produce better outcomes. (In Denmark, the county councils raised their own taxes; the regions that have replaced them do not, being largely funded centrally.) It’s a process that can be seen at work in Scotland and Wales at present and in the creation of unitary counties and metro mayors; it’s also a process we need to denounce where it runs unreasonably against the grain of the decentralisation we seek.
Some of Sweden’s counties can be fiercely independent in spirit. Dalarna is famous for its small, painted wooden horses that have become a national symbol, but that fact only shows how effortlessly Sweden has dealt with local identity – by nationalising it, absorbing it and disarming it. What’s Dalarna’s is everybody’s. Only in the southern tip of Sweden has an identity of regional scale resulted in a questioning of Swedishness itself.
The region of Scania or Skåneland – the three counties of Blekinge, Halland and Skåne (along with the Danish island of Bornholm) – was historically as separate as Scotland. (It’s also where the Old English poem Beowulf is thought to be set and where the Normans originated.) Sweden’s royal arms – three gold crowns on a blue shield – are thought to represent the three kingdoms ruled over by King Magnus Eriksson, who died in 1364. That is to say, Norway, Sweden and Scania. For most of its recorded history down to 1658, Scania was one of the three provinces of Denmark, though always protective of its autonomy. Its landscape and architecture remain much more Danish than Swedish.
The Treaty of Roskilde that transferred it definitively to Sweden in 1658 included all the usual promises about respecting traditional privileges, soon laughed away. The Scanians’ parliament was illegally abolished and a cultural war was set in motion to Swedify everything from the language to clerical dress. Yet Scanians still speak differently. Written down, Danish and Swedish are separate languages, but Sweden is a large country: Danes can understand southern Swedes and vice-versa, while northern Swedes do need the subtitles for Danish films. Especially since the Øresund Bridge opened in 2000, Malmö has become in effect a suburb of Copenhagen (as viewers of The Bridge will be aware). A Scanian regionalist party ought to be able to undo a historic injustice and allow the pivotal point of the Baltic to look both ways, to be almost Danish, and not quite as Swedish as others.
It ought to, yes, but what has happened? The irony is that if Scania has provided one-third of royal Sweden’s identity, and a name and historic logo for some internationally renowned trucks, that’s as far as it goes. Labels in Stockholm’s Nordic Museum repeatedly fall over the fact of Scania, telling visitors that the custom is this in southern Sweden and that in the rest of the country, or that particular traditions in painting and weaving are unique to the south. It’s all reminiscent of the days when Scotland was just ‘North Britain’ and Cornwall was part of the ‘West Country’. There had to be a reckoning.
It came in 1979 with the launch of Skånepartiet, the Scania Party. Scanian regionalism ranges from grumbling about Stockholm getting everything to demands for full independence. The party’s populist policies called for the abolition in Scania of Sweden’s State-owned off-licence monopoly, Systembolaget, and the creation of a Scanian commercial television channel. But Skånepartiet also decided to play the anti-immigration (and especially anti-Islam) card, a calculation that worked well enough in Malmö in the mid-80s. Then its fortunes took a turn for the worse, its number of elected representatives dwindling until 2006, since when it has had none.
Its place has been taken by the Sweden Democrats, a Swedish version of UKIP or the Front National that emerged first in Scania and has since spread across central Sweden. Like its French and UK equivalents, the party wants a single, uniform national culture. It has no time for minorities, however many thousands of years they can claim to have been in the country. It wants to abolish the Sami Parliament, claiming that the parliament’s existence discriminates against those in Sameland who are not Sami and do not rely on the traditional way of life. It’s curious how happy far Right parties are to rant about colonists coming in and changing how we live but never recognise themselves in the description. ‘They’ are immigrants; ‘we’ are ex-pats.
In the 2014 elections, the Sweden Democrats stormed to 12.9%, and 49 seats in the Riksdag. They’re one of a group of far Right parties now making headway in each of the Nordic countries. That’s bad news for regionalists; Skånepartiet may be rueing their choice of strategy. To play the anti-immigrant card when an influx of immigrants into your region is one of its distinctive characteristics may look attractive; once that influx extends nationwide it’s nationwide parties that will pick up the resulting protest vote. The Swedish Right have also been able to dig deep into the votes of the Swedish Left. The Left have moved on to new fields of political correctness, leaving their traditional folkhemmet power base behind. Meanwhile, the tensionsresulting from mass immigration are calling into question the very survival of the Scandinavian welfare model. A party that will defend the legacy of folkhemmetwhen its creators will not, a party that prioritises Swedes in Sweden, is bound to do well.
Then, this month, two gruesome murders in an IKEA store in Västerås, near Stockholm, carried out by an Eritrean migrant, shocked the nation. The latest YouGov poll indicates that the Sweden Democrats are now the top political party in Sweden. Polling at 25.2%, they beat the ruling Social Democrats, on 23.4%. Watch Sweden closely and you’ll see the tide on the turn. It won’t be a pretty sight; Game of Thrones fans might care to note that Västerås is pronounced rather like ‘Westeros’.