Sweden bridges ideological divide

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Fri Sep 17 2010.   Jonathan Power

LUND, SWEDEN—Is the state an opponent?

I put this question to a top Gothenburg lawyer, Christina Ramberg, when interviewing her about Sweden and its top-heavy welfare state.

“No, it’s a friend,” she replies, although she never votes for the Socialists.

Alexandra von Schwerin, an aristocratic businesswoman paying very high taxes, says, “No, it’s a father.”

Not even Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, leader of a right-wing coalition that four years ago replaced the habitual governing party, the Social Democrats, is much against the state. He has dropped the old right-wing mantra of calling for lowering taxes and wants to see only “a more efficient and less conformist state and society.” In an interview he told me that “we are not asking for a different system, just for better results.”

The sense of equality goes deep down in the Swedish psyche, he explains. “The Swedish electorate don’t always look at their wallet. They do want to see other people better off, as well as themselves.”

I asked him where did this unusually benign development in human nature come from — the church, politics, where exactly?

Some part religion, he answered: “Although hardly anyone goes to church these days and we have no link to God, the basic ideas of Christianity stayed on.”

He also pointed to the fact that Sweden has avoided war for 200 years, so it has long been able to benefit from economic growth. “Because of that we had the wherewithal to develop the welfare state in the 1950s. In fact, in the ’50s, we all thought it was a happy time. We had a deeply felt feeling: We can afford it.”

In the late 1970s Sweden began to lose its economic momentum. The right-wing parties came into government for the first time in years and there were severe cutbacks in social services. Their paring back, tax cuts and famous bank rescue (that the U.S. and the U.K. have partly modelled their recent bank resuscitation on) did help to refloat Sweden. But it only made the electorate nostalgic for the Social Democrats.

Under a self-confident socialist and economically skilled prime minister, Goran Persson, Sweden stormed back into the fight, producing annual per-capita growth rates year after year that were the highest among the larger Western countries (they still are). The social services began to be restored — but not to their former glory.

Sclerosis of the system had set in — a more bureaucratic health and welfare service. A senior local politician, Tove Klette, tells me that in the seniors’ residences of Lund, a prosperous university town just across the bridge from Copenhagen, 47 per cent of the staff’s time is spent on administration. It is the same in the hospitals. In the not-so-distant past, people felt entitled to sick leave, even if it was just to watch an important football match. Holidays are regular and long —stretching to five weeks in the summer.

Still, the economy has purred on. Swedes are simply extraordinarily efficient and use their time at work very well. “When we work,” says Ramberg, “we work very well, even without the boss pushing us. No one here could write a book like that French woman a couple of years ago on how not to work at work.”

The prime minister added: “If a plumber says he’ll come to your home at 7 a.m. he’ll be there at 7, and do the job fast and to a high standard.”

Swedes are the Japanese of Europe, I’ve concluded, an observation the prime minister doesn’t demur from. Swedes are conformists, by temperament. It is hard to break out and become a highly successful individual, head and shoulders above everyone else. Of course, this isn’t universal, otherwise there would be no Swedish EricssonTetrapakElectrolux orVolvo, but it’s the going ethos.

The conservative government has been trying to loosen up the conformism of Swedish society, destroying monopolies, introducing competition in the health services and schools and removing petty rules. “We want individual life to flourish, with a much greater degree of freedom,” Reinfeldt says.

Sweden seems to be finding a balance to its basic socialist ethos. Probity, self-discipline and high productivity define the marketplace. But breaking apart the “Japanese” mentality is now a widely accepted social goal. It is not sprinting yet. But if this government wins a second term on Sunday, as is most likely, it will doubtless accelerate the pace to bringing about a less conformist and parochial Sweden.

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