Shining City

I’ve just been sent a popular book about Scandinavia to review. It’s by an Englishman. As a long-time English resident in Sweden (on and off), I always feel nervous and rather defensive when I come across books like this. This one is subtitled ‘The Truth about the Nordic Miracle’. That sounds ominous – or am I being paranoid?

The truth is, there are many people out there, especially in America but also on the British Right, who want to be told bad things about ‘socialist’ Scandinavia. According to them, it shouldn’t work. By most accounts, Scandinavians are happier, more prosperous, more equal yet more individually free (except to accumulate vast unnecessary fortunes), more enterprising, better brought up as children, politer, more moral (unless your only measure of morality is sexual), enormously more gender-equal and far less crime-ridden than in America: all of which qualities Americans are supposed to value. And yet the Nordic countries have high taxation, welfare states, very low church attendance, a higher rate of divorce, a miniscule prison population, and same-sex partnerships. Ideologically that’s wrong. Over the years I’ve read several American newspaper articles arguing that it’s also untrue. (One I remember – I can’t put my finger on it now – claimed that the Swedish murder-rate pro rata was higher than in Chicago.) Nordic noir is doing its bit, too; an American friend of mine, a distinguished professor, once told me he was thinking twice about coming to Sweden after reading The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. (I’m trying to keep Midsomer Murders from him.) Scandinavia’s success sticks in the free-market gullet. It seems to suggest that there is an alternative. That’s why lefties like me have always admired it. When I was in the Labour party in the 1960s and ’70s, Sweden was always my ‘Shining City on the Hill’.

Sweden’s success, together with the ‘progress’ made in her direction in Britain under the latter’s heroic post-war Labour governments (remember the welfare state?), also stopped me becoming a fully-fledged Marxist. Marxists predicted that capitalism would inevitably become more and more red in tooth and claw, until it finally collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions. But it wasn’t happening! Both at home (the welfare state) and abroad (decolonization) capitalism was becoming enlightened enough to compromise, and hence stave off collapse. That was welcome even to a socialist like me, who wanted socialism but not via a bloodbath. (I had too much to lose.) Again, Labour Britain (before Blair) proved that there was an alternative, or a ‘third way’.

Then came Thatcher and Reagan – or it may have started before – and the ‘great reaction’ that brought the capitalist juggernaut back onto the tracks, snorting and belching fire, swiping away the socialists (i.e. human beings) in its path; in a way that seemed to suggest that Marx had been right all along. Except in Scandinavia; which was about twenty years behind Britain and America, and ten behind the rest of Europe: which was why it was so important that it remained social-democratic, to act as a beacon to all us defeated lefties still. Eighteen years ago, when I first came to Sweden, it still was. But it has been getting an awful battering since, from outside sources (including possibly insidious American influences), and its own right-wing – curiously named ‘Moderate’ – governments; so that in many regards it is not the ‘shining city’ it used to be.

That why I fear for English-language books about Scandinavia: in case they weaken its reputation and resolve even further. I haven’t yet read this book, and certainly won’t allow these anticipations to affect my judgment; so hopefully I shall be proved happily wrong. You’ll be able to find out in the pages of the Literary Review, sometime early next year.

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