April Cumming is Vice-Chair of the left-wing think tank the Scottish Fabians. In this article she talks about the limitations of a blind application of ‘Nordic principles’
In my recent travels through circles of Nordic enthusiasts I picked up on an interesting concept; ‘Lagom’. It is a word that has no direct equivalent in the English language, and speaks to the character of the Swedish nation. Synonyms like ‘sufficient’ or ‘adequate’ fail to capture the contentment or balance lagom entails.
On paper it means ‘just enough’, and relates to the central ethos that defines the terms of citizenship; live within your means, acknowledging that there is a balance to be struck between personal comforts and living harmoniously within your societal group. Its key role as a philosophical underpinning in the culture of Swedish life and indeed in the policy that forms the societal framework serves to reinforce a certain way of thinking; that consensus should be of primary concern; that personal control should be strived for; that all have a role to play and none should be too proud.
From an outside perspective this historical tendency toward conformity and emotional moderation could be construed as holding both negatives and positives with regards to individual freedoms. However, this philosophy forms the basis of many of the societal norms in Sweden, and is prevalent to the same or perhaps in parts lesser extent across the Nordic countries. It is the bottom line of their ‘social contract’, in large print, for all citizens to see. According to a popular legend, the word’s etymological roots stretch back to the Vikings when mead, their drink of choice was passed, ’laget om’, or ‘around the team,’ in a horn flask so that each got his fair share. That idea of a ‘fair share’ for all of those in the team has transcended years of social change and has remained a central part of normative attitudes. The Clan thrives when all members live within their means, in balance, and contribute to shared interests. Hence, the welfare ethos that has been so recently lauded by Scottish policy makers has been hundreds of years in the making.
This has been recognised in contemporary Swedish political discourse by academics and by politicians. Kaj Embren, a sustainable development guru based in Stockholm highlights how reinforcing that central idea of ‘balance’ is crucial if today’s Vikings are to weather the stormy economic seas. Fundamentally this means balancing the public and the private sector, and recognising that while private interests are key they cannot function without a strong public sector. The case must be made for “a society of equitable balance – a balance between capitalist models and social policies, between economic growth and environmental sustainability, between national interests and international responsibilities”.
At the Scottish Fabian Society seminar last week we discussed some of the disparities between the policy approach of Scotland and that of the ‘Nordic model’ with regards to Social Security. There has of late been some degree of lionising of one particular way of doing things, which can at times be frustrating as the vast majority of scholars in this field will tell you that the reality is vastly more complex than political rhetoric might reflect. The model is just as much about fairer taxes as it is about better public services. Further to this, the prevalent theme in the speaker’s contributions overwhelmingly was one of trust. Trust in political systems in both the UK and in Scotland is at an all-time low, and political actors are far more likely to engage outwith established parties. In order to convince the populace to acquiesce to a high tax, high spend economic framework you need a high level of trust in public institutions and government. This was highlighted by Ingela Nauman, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Edinburgh University. In a broad ranging speech she highlighted both the lessons we could learn and the barriers put in place by cultural norms. One key difference stands out in light of the economic detail published in the white paper. High taxation in Nordic countries is necessary in order to provide the levels of public services we have all recently admired from afar. In order to do this you must convince the public of the case for such a model, and demonstrate competency with regard to budgeting for social security spending. This model has been compared to a bumble bee, in that while the body (representing the state) is heavy it is still capable of flight. This rotund economic insect can only take flight if the members of the state give their consent, and consent is only possible when the societal norms of a country change and trust is restored. Many in Scottish political and academic circles see constitutional change as a means to this end, but rest assured that whatever your political colouring this will be no short term project. Until we can develop something of our own sense of ‘Lagom’ that goes beyond political jargon and party buzzwords and actually speaks to the dire need to reconnect as a society of equals we will never establish the equilibrium needed for Scotland to flourish.
The White Paper only tells half of the story that voters need to hear, and when only half of the picture is painted we are left no more certain as to what we are supposed to see. We are left questioning why key elements are obscured, why the artist has chosen to leave so much to the imagination. I am of course using an overly convoluted metaphor for tax. Perhaps if the masterpiece of nationalist ambition had contained a little more than just sunny uplands and provided detail of what lies in the foreground the population could gain a better idea of whether the rhetoric idealising the Nordic Model goes beyond that; simply rhetoric. We need to talk about tax. This means for Unionists explaining what we would do as part of the UK, and for Independence campaigners what we would do as an independent country, and go beyond implying that a Scandinavian approach could simply be applied as a panacea for Scotland’s social problems. We have far to go to reach the levels of public trust and consensus that exist across the North sea, but whatever route we take to get there it is a long journey worth making.