Posts Tagged sweden

Our Friends In The North: The Nordic dream without the navel gazing

It was with trepidation that I sat down to watch Our Friends in the North, BBC Scotland’s attempt to address the Nordicism that has crept into the independence referendum. It is an important part of the debate and the closest Scotland can get to imagining an alternate reality. Alex Salmond doesn’t really seem to get the Nordic countries in anything other than economistic terms, but as a former oil economist maybe that is to be expected. What Our Friends in the North and its host Alan Little did so well was demand answers to the questions created by the rhetoric. It is very easy to project your dreams onto something you don’t know much about, and is easy to imagine the First Minister sitting at home with a big Norwegian flag on the wall like a teenage boy staring wide eyed at a poster of Che Guevara he’s bought off the internet.

The programme asked a fundamental question: Is the Nordic economic model one Scotland can follow? There was some mention of shared heritage and attempts to problematise Scotland’s position bridging the gap between the British and the Northern, but it was largely an economistic view of events.

The excellent Alan Little began by popping off to Finland to find out about Nokia and childcare. There was an admirable attempt to situate Finland as a post-colonial country like Scotland might become. There was discussion of the economic crash of the early 90s due to dependence on the Soviet Union and a mention of how Scandinavian economies are not that diverse, but parallels could be made with the collapse of the largely London-based UK economy after the last financial crisis – in Finland at least the government had the tools to come up with a policy tailored to the country.

The childcare aspect was a detour into social policies, and these are perhaps the hardest to replicate. It also began a theme for the rest of the show that was never explicitly articulated. Many of the people encountered or interviewed were professional women enjoying high levels of access to both professions and childcare. The integration of educated and working women is one of the things that truly divides Scotland from its easterly neighbours, but as gay marriage so happily proved, that kind of equality is about mindset as much as money. You want it and then you fund it, rather than deciding you have the spare cash for such luxuries.

Next up was Sweden, and Alan Little went to speak to The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson. In London. Nelson is a man who knows very little about Sweden and not an awful lot more about contemporary Scotland. He gave the Cameronite line on the country, painting  the Swedish New Moderates and their liberal coalition partners as guardians of a progressive society. He claimed improved economic performance and employment, ignoring the fact that since the Moderates have been in power there have been serious tax cuts and in increase in temporary, lower paid jobs. Youth unemployment has increased and educational reforms, including the Free School concept, have created myriad problems. Stockholm is also suffering from an acute housing shortage due to the refusal of the Moderates to build accessible housing rather than suburban developments.

Alan popped back to Scandinavia to interview Lars Trädgårdh, a Swedish academic who has spent a lot of time in America and become a bit of a talking head for this kind of thing. Lars took Alan up onto the roof of the Higher Education where he works and pointed at the headquarters of the tax authorities. The problem was it isn’t the headquarters of the tax authorities and has not been for quite some time. I know because I used to live in it, but seeing as the tallest building being the tax headquarters is an established narrative trope in any guide to Sweden it seems a shame to get caught up on it.

 There was an assertion that Sweden doesn’t have a generous welfare state, which was a bit of a lie. It has an extremely generous welfare state, but it is built on a more expansive understanding of welfare than state unemployment benefit. This includes paying people to not work when they have young children, wage-linked unemployment funds and more robust attempts at education and retraining than that provided by either the current or previous Westminster governments, or by Britain historically for that matter. Alan Little’s assertion that “This isn’t the Sweden many on the left imagine” is true in part, but it almost seemed like it was too good a discovery to not make a point of. The truth of the matter is that many of the tenets of Scandinavian welfarism find no points of reference in British models or parlance. It isn’t Robin McAlpine’s William Morris inspired consensual welfarism, but neither is it Fraser Nelson’s utopia of hard work and sticks over carrots.

Last up was Norway, though Denmark wasn’t allowed a mention for some reason. Norway is the most prosperous of the Nordic countries, and as Alan strolled around Oslo’s redeveloped waterfront of speedboats and yuppie flats straight into the Nobel Peace Centre everything looked rosy. Norway is undeniably a great place to live, and definitely a much better bet than contemporary Britain by all kinds of measures. He visited a former industrial area reborn through a private business school. At an employment fair members of Norway’s so-called ‘dessert generation’ (because they are young enough to have only turned up for the sweetest part of the country’s journey from poor to rich and are known for wanting to have their cake and eat it) flocked to tables to become investment bankers or recruitment agents. The conclusion though was fairly unambiguous – even a tiny public oil fund would do wonders for Scotland’s economic and social rebirth.

There then came a very important question: why couldn’t Scotland pursue this Nordic model with further devolution? It was a question Little did not try to answer, but looking back over what was said some of the conclusions were self-evident. Could devolution make a Scottish oil fund, help protect Scotland from the economic collapse of a larger neighbour or allow it to radically reform its welfare and monetary policy? Probably not.

The best contribution though came in the show’s final lines. Alan Little is in the privileged position of speaking as a Scot who has gone not just to London but all over the world. He understands the context of change and political evolution, and his final question was the right one to ask. Should we not see the referendum in its broader, European context? Is this cutting Scotland off, or is it a repositioning at the nexus between two sets of neighbours?

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Jumping into bed with the Swedes

Shetland's hybrid Scots-Scandinavian flag

Shetland: Already halfway there

There have, in the past week, been a few noteworthy articles regarding the Scandinavian shadow which looms large over the issue of Scottish independence, as well as the future and makeup of Scotland’s economy, welfare system and society more generally.

Now I write this as somebody who knows a fair deal more about Scandinavia than most, for both personal and professional reasons.  A colleague of mine in the Greens remarked that the next Scottish Green manifesto should just be called ‘Scandinavian Nirvana’, such is the appetite in the party for increased welfare, greater social freedoms, gender equality and local democracy. I wholeheartedly agree.

Which brings me to something said by Blair McDougall in a BBC interview on the independence referendum. He accuses his opposite number in the Yes campaign, the significantly more articulate and less hackish Blair Jenkins, of wanting ‘57 per cent tax like in Norway’. There are indeed people in Norway paying that much tax, but these kind of people are not the salt of the earth working men and women which McDougall thinks will be crushed by the weight of Kaiser Salmond’s iron taxation, if he did indeed have such plans.

Then there was a report in The Economist which made the odd logical step of collating the radical reforms by centre-right governments in Sweden and formerly in Denmark with the high living standards and safe economies of the Nordic countries. As the Swedish journalist Katrin Kielos noted, there is an awful schizophrenia about the new craze for the Nordic centre-right, in that it assumes that being Scandinavian is a virtue in itself and argues that the path forward for these secure and durable systems is to follow a more British or American model . It is a trend which wishes to dine on the fruits of the Scandinavian countries’ labour whilst seeking to undermine it at its foundations.

The whole thing is illustrative of the fact that there is a huge amount of ignorance about the way in which Scandinavian society functions, and that this ignorance can be used to significant political advantage. It is also debatable to what extent it is even appropriate to address the Nordic countries as a single unit. There are however certain things which underpin  ‘the Scandinavian model’ which Scotland would have to adopt were it to develop in such a direction.

The first is a strict ethos of universalism. Not all services are free in Sweden or its neighbours, but notable by its absence is the incredibly British notion of selective assistance. Britain seems to implicitly accept that there should be huge gaps in income between different levels of society, and that one of the roles of public welfare is to alleviate this. It is a mode of thinking which the New Labour project perfected with its targeted alleviation, support for bright pupils from state schools and university access bursaries, without ever tackling the structural causes of poverty and discrimination.

Secondly, the way in which Scandinavian trade unions work is different to the British model. The nostalgia for the 1970s which pervades much of Britain’s left ignores the fact that old British models of trade-unionism were what allowed public support for the radical reforms of the 1980s. The systems of collective bargaining employed in Sweden and relatively high levels of unionisation amongst what might be termed normal people means that it is both destigmatised and can claim to represent large portions of the population.  This system has come under attack from centre-right governments in recent years but has survived relatively intact. The Scandinavian countries do not have a legal minimum wage, but they do have an effective minimum wage proportionally higher than Scotland, leading to a reduction in income inequality before the tax system has even played its redistributive  role.

And once tax is collected, where does it go? Not into benefits as they might be normally understood, but rather into the provision of universal services.  Childcare, incredibly well funded education systems, transport and infrastructure and healthcare.  The biggest challenge to Scotland is whether it is possible to transfer to this type of system given the appalling disparity evident in the country and present. It is in the interests of every Scottish woman to vote for a scenario which will provide the funding and structures for them to work and live on the same terms as men (and from a male feminist perspective, in men’s interest too).

Now to return to Blair McDougall and his mythical 57 per cent tax rate, I would say that it would only become an issue when you earn as much money as a senior press adviser or an MP.  Having large tax reserves means that in times of crisis governments are able to effectively deal with them, unlike the British model of medium taxation on an out of control financial system without any thought as to the after effects.

So to be realistic, adopting a Scandinavian social model would involve higher rates of tax, but it would also involve higher wages and better public services. In real terms incomes might well be higher, or at least remain static whilst providing for higher levels of public investment.

The whole thing is also dependent on a grand narrative. People vote for things because they believe in their viability, and the Scandinavian system is underpinned by a notion of functional redistribution different from the dominant discourse in Britain, and even in Scotland. It isn’t about smashing the rich or shooting bankers at dawn, but rather about building a cohesive society which works in the interest of all. As Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg says, “to create we must share, and to share we must create.”

David Leask’s excellent ‘As Others See Us’ column in the Herald, in which a group of Norwegians were asked for their opinion on independence, was revealing. The lack of interest in Scotland’s constitutional future was unsurprising – I frequently find myself explaining to Swedes the ins and outs of the independence movement – as Scotland is not politically visible. The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter  recently published a feature on Europe’s contemporary independence movements which mentioned Scotland in the same breath as the Northern League in Italy and Flemish separatism in Belgium, entirely ignoring the broadly leftist motivations found in the majority of pro-independence groups and parties in Scotland. The challenge will be to explicitly build the construction of a sustainable and humane welfare state into the Scottish cultural narrative at home and abroad.

Neither would we or should we transform Scotland into Scandinavia overnight. When talking with a good friend of mine about how I hoped to live in a Scotland where I felt the state and society treated me and any potential wife/partner equally she smiled wryly and wished me good luck, with some justification. But that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try. I answered that to combine the best aspects of Scotland and Sweden would create something beautiful, but that it would require the type of radical social change not seen since the 1960s. It would be a national project which larger countries would be entirely incapable of, but which might just work in Scotland. Scandinavia might be a fluid concept with many faces, but the values which it ostensibly represents are what we should really be aiming for. Both financially and morally, we cannot afford not to.

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A political machine that gives change

I’m leaving Sweden, again. It feels good to be heading back to my flat in Leith, to Stereo in Glasgow and all my friends, to the Cairngorms, to Frightened Rabbit and Easter Road, CalMac ferries and Scotrail sprinter trains. I would also have put Innis and Gunn Rum Cask on the list, but the Swedish alcohol monopoly sees fit to stock the stuff to an admirable degree.

I’ve been away for a half-year now, watching the independence referendum from afar. I’ve seen TV clips of Johann Lamont declare Scotland a something-for-nothing society before finishing my breakfast and going to work with better paid colleagues at publicly funded Swedish universities. I’ve been forced to turn down Facebook invites to a succession of Nordic Horizons events at the Scottish Parliament, but then had the pleasure of seeing the ideas they promote in action every day.

I’ve heard the Better Together campaign say that modern Scotland is as good as it gets, then walked out of my front door to see a version of urban life which is in many ways better.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a Green party take its place as the third party in parliament and take on both left and right on the environment, on child poverty and on the terrible state of privatized railways. Every day on my way to the metro station I pass three different council-run nursery schools and men with pushchairs taking their paternity leave whilst their partners return to work.

I’ve been able to live cheaply in cooperatively run housing with district heating and communal facilities, so well insulated that I often don’t even need to have the radiator on.

I’ve met young Green activists who, unlike young people in Scotland and the rest of Britain, seem to have a genuine belief in their ability to change their country for the better.  I’ve hung out with girls from a design school who one day decided that all of the products they made should have zero environmental impact and then set about making it happen.

I’ve talked to writers and journalists who are all part of a vibrant cultural arena, and seen what proper funding can do for political diversity (all Swedish parliamentary parties are given money to stimulate debate and encourage youth politics, as well as to maintain a small staff).

I will be sad to leave Sweden, though it is not a country without its own problems (not least a worrying consumerism which accompanies being one of the world’s richest countries), but I come back over the North Sea with a sincere belief that a Scandinavian style approach in Scotland is not just desirable, but both possible and necessary. Britain today is not as good as it gets.

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