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An inside perspective on Sweden – David n/SSF

An inside perspective on Sweden

David N/SSF

Gothenburg, Sweden

Gothenburg, Sweden

The Society of Saint Francis has for a long time had contacts with Sweden and we now have two First Order Novices from Sweden (myself included) living in the UK. There are also about 40 Tertiaries living in Sweden. I’ve been asked to give an inside perspective on my home country.

Sweden has a population of only 9.6 million people, so it’s significantly smaller than the United Kingdom. One thing that Sweden has in common with the UK is that it’s a constitutional monarchy, although the King has less power and influence than the British monarch, and I would say is probably a bit less popular. Like the UK, Sweden’s relationship to the rest of Europe is a bit complicated. In 1994 Sweden held a referendum on membership in the European Union and 52% of the voters voted ‘yes’ to membership. In 2003 there was another referendum, that time about membership in the Eurozone, and 55% of the voters voted ‘no’. Even though neither of these referendums were legally binding the Swedish Government have respected the will of the people. My own experience is that Swedes overall tend to be a bit more positive towards membership in the EU than British people are, and there aren’t any real discussions at the moment about an in/out referendum as is the case here in the UK. However there is also quite a lot of scepticism among many Swedes towards the EU, either towards some things that it stands for or in some cases for the whole project itself. But probably most Swedes would see membership of the EU as something necessary even though it might not be perfect. My own experience is that euro-scepticism in Sweden is usually stronger among parties and people who would be to the left rather than to the right on the political scale. There are exceptions to this, of course, but overall that seems to be the case.

The liberal intelligentsia in many countries often seems to look to Sweden as an example of a just, equal and tolerant society, some sort of left-wing paradise. Why is that? And more importantly, is it true?

I guess it depends on who you ask; I’m probably a bit too biased to answer that question. What is clear, however, is that Sweden has changed a lot in the last couple of decades and a lot of the things that people have associated with Sweden might not be true anymore. It seems that a lot of people are looking back to a glorious time of a just and equal society that may or may not have existed.

Sweden did change a lot during the twentieth century and now more recently in the twenty-first century. Sweden was neutral during the two World Wars and in the interwar period Sweden went through a lot of changes and Hjalmar Branting became the first Social Democratic Prime Minister of Sweden. The Social Democratic Party would go on to rule Sweden for more or less the rest of the twentieth century, and managed to put a clear mark on Swedish politics and society. They set out to create a Swedish Model of a just and equal society, a folkhem, as they called it.

The Swedish Model consists of a strong welfare-state, high levels of public spending (about 45-50% of GDP), public ownership of companies (train companies, energy companies etc), workers’ rights, free primary, secondary and university education, etc. The Swedish Model was and is collective by nature, and that has put its mark on Swedish culture. Although paradoxically Swedes are also a very individualistic people. Sweden has, for example, the highest percent of single households in the world, at 47%.

After a big financial crisis in the early 1990s quite a few changes were made to the way Sweden was governed. The private sector got more involved in areas where the government previously had a monopoly. Sweden saw the privatization of several public services, and for-profit free schools were introduced with a system of school vouchers that is funded with public money from the local municipality. This and several other similar reforms have led Sweden to become much more of a free-market economy, which might not be the first thing people associate with Sweden.

At the moment the Swedish Government consists of a coalition of four centre-right parties, and the Social Democratic Party are in opposition, even though they are still the biggest party in parliament. So the political landscape in Sweden has changed a lot during the last couple of decades. However Sweden is still in many ways one of the most equal countries in the world, for example when it comes to income equality, and gender equality (45% of MPs are women, contrasting that to the UK where 22% of MPs are women). However, income inequality is growing, as Sweden has recently seen the fastest growth in income inequality of any advanced OECD country. So a class society certainly still exists, and there are many areas of deprivation. Something that shocked a lot of people (including people in the British media) was the riots that took place in Husby (a suburb of Stockholm) in May 2013. Husby is by Swedish standards a fairly deprived area with high unemployment and a high concentration of immigrants.

The scale of the riots was nowhere near that of the riots that took place in cities in the UK in 2011, but it did lead to a lot of soul searching among Swedish people, and did serious damage to Sweden’s reputation abroad. Since the 1970s and to this day Sweden has accepted a significant number of refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world. This has rapidly changed the demographics of Sweden, which used to be a fairly homogeneous society. Now probably around 25% of the Swedish population have a foreign background and around 15% were born abroad.

Sweden has in recent years seen the rise of a right-wing political party with a staunch anti-immigration stance called the Sweden Democrats. They were elected to the national parliament in 2010. This was a shock to a lot of people in Sweden and abroad, since a lot of Swedes had (and still have to some extent) a self-image of being an open, tolerant, multicultural society, a society free of racism and prejudices. But when the Sweden Democrats got 5.7% in the General Election in 2010, and more recently 9.7% in the Election to European Parliament in May this year, it shattered the self-image of a lot of Swedes. We were no longer a nation free from anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia, and if you scratched the surface you noticed that there was a lot of resentment towards immigrants in many parts of the country.

Hopefully Sweden will continue to be an open and equal society even in the future, and we will see if the general election on 14th September this year will affirm that. f

David n/SSF has spent the last year living at St Anthony’s Friary in Newcastle upon Tyne and is about to move to Leeds. He is originally from Gothenburg in Sweden.

page 7 David at Newcastle portrait