9 February

The UK Nordic Baltic Summit: Dispelling the Nordic Myth

From a guest blogger who is a Swedish National:

The Prime Ministers of Norway, Sweden, Lithuania, Estonia, Iceland, UK, Finland, Denmark and Latvia meet in London

What is so fascinating about the Nordic countries, besides their natural beauty, polar lights, and, allegedly beautiful blondes? To the foreign observer, the region seems to be filled with tranquil mystery churning out high-tech goods, economic growth and happy people. As The Economist rightly notes, this fascination used to be the preserve of the political left but now David Cameron and even attendants at Davos, have apparently caught on.

To a Swedish native the discussion can seem quite naïve and even – at times – frustrating. For example, the supposed economic wonder (or ‘Nordic Capitalism’) of Sweden is neither wondrous nor Swedish: it is built on pure economic sense, tried many times before. Sweden experienced its very own banking and financial crisis in the early 1990s which exposed a bloated state to the realities of economics. The government of the time embarked on an aggressive budget-realignment process by slashing expenditure, raising taxes and selling state assets. The newly independent central bank was also very helpful in re-establishing the credibility of macroeconomic policies. Sweden is now merely enjoying the fruits of its fiscal rigidity and discipline. As for Swedish multinational companies – greatly admired by natives – there is not much that is Swedish about them either. In fact, all of the larger companies were established before the Second World War and the introduction of the ‘Swedish Model’. In essence, there is much to say about Swedish innovation but, as things stand, it is not allowed to bloom as very few Swedish start-ups are able to expand. Indeed, it was precisely because of apparent stagnation and lack of job-creation that the Social Democrats (chief engineers of the ‘Swedish Model’) were ousted by voters in 2006 who swept a centre-right coalition to power and re-elected it last year.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt

But, as any Northern European knows, centre-right is a relative concept. Nowhere is this clearer than in their support of the welfare state. In the eyes of a Swede, the state is an omnipotent, benevolent and necessary provider of everything. Foreigners are often impressed and inquisitive about its welfare provision. But should they be? Studies by the OECD’s PISA paint an educational system declining year by year, especially in mathematics and the natural sciences. The healthcare system suffers from the inevitable strains of a state apparatus – with long queues and inadequate care (the previous Prime Minister had to wait a year to have a hip operation). Private insurance and independent schooling are becoming increasingly common in order to secure adequate welfare services and education.

The state maintains a similar dominion in social and cultural matters. The welfare state, as often happens, has effectively severed all interpersonal relations of charity, and the family is viewed as a superfluous concept belonging to a bygone era. In a country obsessed with gender-equality, the state looks to implement its ideology of conformity and modernity at an early age. Schools are not preoccupied with such frivolous activities as languages, maths, and history, but teach children liberal sexuality, and how to cook and clean – things normally handled in the family. (One MP told me – with a straight face – that it’s about time that schools should also teach children how to pay bills at the bank.)

There are many good things to say about Sweden, but its economic success is not unique and its self-heralded, detrimental social policy is not a model for others. Only economic and technological successes count in a country where the cultural revolutions of the 1960s still hold a firm grip. In many ways it is a prime example of an insecure country which thinks it has cast off the yoke of tradition and, in embracing post-modernity and state-dominance, that it has achieved the ultimate point of success and freedom. It is a country which desperately needs to rediscover its historical and cultural roots and, ultimately, to rediscover the true destiny of man.

(Photos: © Foreign and Commonwealth Office. No endorsement implied.)

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