The day before the referendum on Scottish independence I took the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, the Bathgate and Airdrie way, through the central belt. With a Danish TV crew in tow we rolled past the industrial estates of the Almond valley and over the wind-beaten hills from Scotland’s second biggest city to its largest. We were there because the Danes wanted to report on the Scotland beyond the clichés and find a bit of normality somewhere. We found it in a Coatbridge tower block, a pensioner in a dressing gown and hair net waiting for her hairdresser to arrive as she stared out over the Lanarkshire hills from her weatherproofed window on the 13th floor.
A week after the referendum I found myself on a different train journey, from Gothenburg to Stockholm. The country that became a blueprint for what the imagined post-independence Scotland could have looked like has a central belt too, a string of small factory towns stretching from coast to coast. Take the slow train and you see an awful lot of them, clustered around canals and lakes with wood processing plants and packing warehouses in red brick. In some the social housing projects of the fifties and sixties mingle with the wooden villas of an earlier age and the eco-leaning terraces of 1990s and 2000s Scandinavinism sub-urbanism.
Both countries are currently on a comedown, dealing with the fact that their dreams have been tempered by a democratic reality. In Scotland’s case, voters said no to independence, and in Sweden’s the hopes for a majority left government for the first time in almost a decade faded at the hands of a far-right surge and the unenterprising vision of a Social Democratic party looking desperately for a sense of purpose.
Yet Sweden is a particularly mundane utopia. The great Social Democratic project may be as directionless as the dream of a Scottish people’s home, but Scotland and Sweden are still two very different places in how they look and feel. Sweden has entered a stage of indecision at the end of the project, whilst Scotland has not begun. If the question in Sweden is ‘what now’, the question in Scotland is ‘why are we still here?’
Waiting for the train, smoking a cigarette outside the shuttered booking hall of Coatbridge Sunnyside railway station, my half Swedish, half Danish colleague gestures toward the grey pebbledash and the jumble of Yes and No Thanks signs in the tiny windows opposite.
“Why are all the homes here so poor?”, she asks. She doesn’t mean the poverty, even though you do not have to go far in Coatbridge to find examples of it, from the empty shops to discount chain stores. She is talking about the dysfunctionality of the buildings. Cut off from the street by protective barriers across a sea of tarmac, they ring the spot at which many people arrive in the town.
This was the utopian dream, I answer. These were the new homes, the open towns away from inner city Glasgow, but now we’ve all decided that inner cities are the place to be and everyone has forgotten about the new towns and housing projects of the 60s and 70s. Once again Labour are in charge of the project, but instead of building council houses it is all about incentivising newbuilds on the red sandstone ashes of central and eastern Glasgow, a fast track to easy pickings for private developers.
In Sweden meanwhile the sun is shining on the lakes and forests. The Göta Canal, designed in part by the Scot Thomas Telford, cuts across Sweden together with the railway. Along it are the kinds of small towns that most people never see, a main street around a railway station with a municipal sports hall and a supermarket. Many of them are single-industry places, but unlike the grey sameness of Bathgate or Blackburn they have somehow survived.
In the small town of Arboga, a women’s football match has just kicked off by the station. The town was previously home to Volvo aviation, now gone, but it is not mired in post-industrial malaise. The sports facilities are well maintained and it still feels like old fashioned Sweden in many ways. That partly explains the political makeup – in the recent elections forty per cent of people voted Social Democrat, but almost fifteen per cent voted for the populist right Sweden Democrats. The Sweden Democrats campaigned on a platform of ‘tradition and security’, and in a country struggling to adapt to globalisation and the brutal orthodoxy of contemporary European markets their message is simplistic but attractive: Sweden was better in the past, and we can bring it back. This is Sweden’s mundane utopia.
Further on, the train rolls through Stockholm’s northern suburbs. Small communities sucked in by the growing city and connected by metro and commuter train. It was a dream Glasgow briefly held in the fifties before abandoning it in favour of motorways and a disdain for inner city living. The tracks are being quadrupled to cope with increased demand for public transport, but how Sweden is going to pay for such long term investments is increasingly unclear. The previous government reduced taxes significantly and public finances are no longer as forthcoming as they once were. Now all the talk is of management and small changes over utopian visions. Sweden has had its age of transformation, and now politics is about safeguarding what was once achieved.
Back in Scotland, George Square is alive with Yes supporters optimistically waiting for a vote they themselves still believe they can win. Old nationalists shouting ‘freedom’ with lions rampant mingle with hipsters and peace campaigners. Down the street some younger female campaigners complain about the vocal men with saltires round their shoulders driving potential voters away. This temporary fusion of old nationalism and new utopianism need only hold up for twenty four hours more. The Danes get the shots of saltires and crowds they need for their TV spot. A few thousand people who all share the same dream, some in all the nuanced shades of colour and some more black and white.
In Stockholm the mundane utopia still ticks over, though it is starting to come apart at the seams. The Greens are trying to form a minority government with the Social Democrats, struggling with a the details and responsibilities of administering one of the wealthiest nations on earth as it goes through a crisis of self image. In Lanarkshire meanwhile, people still wait for the mundane comfort the referendum promised them.