Is Sweden in the midst of
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December 30, 2008
LONDON - "Is the state an opponent?", I asked one top Gothenburg lawyer, Christina Ramberg, a former academic and now working in a prosperous private practice. ”No it's a friend”, she replied, although she never votes for the Socialists, the supposed authors of Sweden's top heavy welfare state. Another, Alexandra von Schwerin, an aristocratic businesswoman paying high taxes, said ”No, it's a father.”
Not even Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, leader of a conservative coalition that two 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 just before Christmas 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 explained. ”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, or what 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 1980s 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 pairing back, tax cuts and famous bank rescue (that the U.S. and the UK 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 the self-confident Socialist and economically skilled prime minister, Goran Persson, Sweden stormed back into the fight - producing annual per head growth rates year after year that were the highest among the larger Western countries. 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, told me that in the old people's homes of Lund, a prosperous university town, 47% of the time of the staff is spent in administration. It is the same in the hospitals. People feel entitled to sick leave, even if it is just to watch an important football match. Holidays are regular and long- in the summer stretching to five weeks.
Still, the economy, until the present world crisis, has purred on. Swedes are simply extraordinarily efficient and use their time at work very well. ”When we work”, said Professor Ramberg, ”We work very well, even without the boss pushing us. No one here could write a book like that French woman last year on how not to work at work.” The prime minister added, ”If a plumber says he'll come to your home at 7am 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 that 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 or otherwise there'd be no Swedish Ericsson or Electrolux or Volvo, but it's the going ethos.
The conservative government is now 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 more, with greater freedom”, says Mr Reinfeldt.
I see it on a small scale in Lund. A few years ago cafes had no outside chairs. Then, copying what Swedes had seen on southern holidays, they started putting them out. But the town council stepped in and said they must all be dismantled by October 31st. Now they are allowed to be there all year round.
Sweden seems to be finding a balance in its basic socialist ethos. Probity, self-discipline and high productivity define the market place. Breaking apart the ”Japanese” mentality is now a widely accepted social goal. The first goes fast. The second is not sprinting yet. But if this government wins a second term in two years' time it will doubtless accelerate.
Copyright © 2008 Jonathan
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