Is the British left falling out of love with Sweden?

After Baroness Thatcher’s death, when a renewed debate about her legacy had erupted, one particular publication format was suddenly all over the place: the ‘myth-buster’. Five myths about Thatcher, seven myths about Thatcher, ten myths about Thatcher – myth-busting had become a popular sport.  

Many of these myth-busters were well-researched and informative, but their title was also a bit of a misnomer. Some of the Thatcher myths are not, strictly speaking, myths. They are rather a failure to distinguish between the historical Prime Minister Thatcher and a ‘symbolic Thatcher’ – Thatcher as in ‘Thatcherism’. Take the assertion that she ‘slashed welfare spending’: the historical Prime Minister Thatcher did no such thing, but it is something that the symbolic Thatcher might well have done. The confusion arises because the two are frequently mixed up. Too many observers believe that everything they associate with Thatcherism as a general concept actually happened in 1980s Britain.

A similar phenomenon is at work when the British left talks about Sweden. Yes, there is a country in Northern Europe called Sweden, a place which most people associate with elks, timber houses, IKEA and ABBA. But when the British left talks about Sweden, they are not referring to this actual country. They refer to a symbolic Sweden, a place which stands for Big Government, generous welfare provision, democratic collectivism, statism, egalitarianism and social harmony.   

Now that Sweden is shaken by riots which look embarrassingly similar to the 2011 London riots – the politically correct interpretation of which was that they were an outcry against inequality, poverty and spending cuts – our bien-pensants are hastily rewriting their image of the country. The BBC now reports:

‘Many said there was a wider context of a growing gap between rich and poor in Sweden. […] Sweden has seen the biggest increase in inequality of any developed country over the past 25 years.’

The Guardian adds:

‘After decades of practising the Swedish model of generous welfare benefits, Stockholm has reduced the role of the state since the 1990s, spurring the fastest growth in inequality of any advanced OECD economy. […] successive governments have failed to substantially reduce long-term youth unemployment and poverty, which have affected immigrant communities worst.’

The comments below the latter article are a delight. Suddenly, everybody has known it all along: Sweden is a neoliberal hellhole. People riot because Sweden has private schools, private welfare providers, spending cuts, and worst of all, private healthcare. The rioters may not be quite aware of it, but they are ‘really’ rioting against the free-market fundamentalism of PM Reinfeldt and his predecessors. The symbolic Sweden has been moved into the past, and we have always been at war with Eastasia. 

I’m not an expert on Sweden, but as far as I can judge, it is a very unusual model which, by British standards, would be considered highly interventionist in some respects, and very liberal in other respects. Of course, no country is simply ‘more liberal’ or ‘more interventionist’ than another country in every single respect, but the Scandinavian countries show an especially diverse policy mix.

So far, British Scandinavophiles have ignored this heterogeneity entirely. They have clung to their symbolic Sweden, a place where people do little else but pay taxes, consume public services, and then pay some more taxes. I have been complaining for quite a while about this wilfully selective, reductionist perspective. But now that it’s gone, I don’t think I like what has replaced it any better.

If they want a favourite country to point to, it should be Norway.

@Anonymous Wouldn't Norway's oil wealth make it a problematic exemplar?

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