In the Guardian today there’s a long piece by Michael Booth on Scandinavia, based on his new book, about which I blogged here when I received it for review in December. Here is my finished review, coming out in the Literary Review soon. I now think I should have been tougher on him. His description (in the Guardian) of the Systembolaget (quoting Susan Sontag) as ‘part funeral parlour, part back-room abortionist’ is a cheap travesty. They are wonderful places, bright, full of dependable wines – none of the rubbish you can get in our free-market wine stores – and staffed by helpful and knowledgeable people. Anyhow, here’s my review.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People. The Truth about the Nordic Miracle; by Michael Booth (Jonathan Cape, 395 pp., £14.99)
Scandinavia, or the Nordic countries if you want to include all five of them, does seem a bit of a marvel. To Labour supporters of my generation it was our ‘shining city on the hill’: an example of what democratic socialism could be like, without lapsing into Soviet tyranny. By the political Right it was either regarded as an embarrassment, suggesting that there was in fact ‘an alternative’ to liberal capitalism – remember Margaret Thatcher’s ‘TINA’?; or else dismissed as an illusion, a city built on sand, which would be bound to topple soon, and was probably less shining even then than it was presented. (Surely people must be groaning under all that taxation?) I feared at first that this book might be a sop to the latter group: ‘the truth about…’ (in the subtitle) seemed ominous; but I needn’t have worried over-much. Michael Booth has some conventional right-of-centre views about the Nordic welfare model: its unsustainability, its stifling impact on work and enterprise, its uniformity, its sheer dullness, as he sees it; but in the end his conclusion is that, for those ‘looking for an alternative to the rampant capitalism that has ravaged our economies’ in recent years, ‘the Nordic countries have the answer’. Which comes as a bit of a surprise after the strong criticisms of all of them expressed in the rest of the book. The Danish chapters are really quite excoriating; which puzzled me as to why the original Danish edition of the book, as its publisher tells us, got five-star reviews – until I reached the chapters on Sweden, which are even less complimentary. The Danes will accept any amount of punishment, it seems, if you beat the Swedes harder.
Booth starts with Denmark because he lives there, with a Danish wife and children at Danish schools. That, I suggest, gives him an insight into that country that doesn’t quite extend to the others, which he has merely visited and researched, and after Denmark, which has inevitably coloured his views of all of them. (I would do the same. I live in Sweden; when I visit the other Nordic countries I see them through Swedish, and behind that British, eyes.) He is at pains to point out how different they all are, and how scathing of the others. That’s true. You should hear my partner on the Danes (jokingly)! She’s going to love some of the ammunition provided here. Can it really be true that ‘seven per cent of Danish men have had sex with an animal’? (Not the same one, surely.) One of the major problems with this book is that it provides no sources or references, so we can’t rely on it. Much of it is impressionistic, and I have to say that many of its impressions of the Swedes don’t accord with mine. On the other hand, Booth is absolutely right to be angry about Sweden’s record in World War II, which ought to be a source of shame to Swedes still, but which most of them seem blithely unaware of. This may be one of the things that fuels the arrogance that their neighbours detect in them. In Finland, apparently, which Sweden refused to help in its ‘winter war’ against the Soviets, it is also seen as evidence of Swedish men’s ‘gayness’. That and the hairnets that were ordered for the Swedish military in the 1960s, when long hair was fashionable. (Booth is good on Finnish ‘macho’ culture.)
It was Sweden’s ‘neutrality’ during the war which laid the base for her economic prosperity afterwards, though most Swedes themselves – and their British admirers – prefer to attribute it to their ‘consensual’ political and economic model. That, and their social egalitarianism, especially with regard to the sexes, is something that all the Nordic countries share. Even in ‘macho’ Finland, with its ‘wife-carrying competitions’ and the rest, half its politicians are women, 60% of its graduates, and a large proportion of its CEOs. At the root of this undoubtedly lies Scandinavia’s generous parental leave and child-care systems, which enable parental tasks to be shared, and consequently women to be liberated to fulfill themselves in other ways if they want. (Booth worries about the ‘feminist’ pressures on them to go out to work even if they would prefer not to.) The trade unions are powerful, but also co-operative with the owners, which was, of course, what Harold Wilson’s government saw as the solution to Britain’s economic ills, until his unions scuppered it. Michael Booth spends a lot of time trying to get to the bottom of this ‘consensus’ culture in Scandinavia, with a number of ingenious theories, most of them historical: the Viking inheritance, ethnic homogeneity (until recently), the lack of a proper feudal system in the middle ages, Denmark’s reduction from a great power to the rump of a nation by the nineteenth century, and so on. My Scandinavian friends, on the other hand, think this is a ‘natural’ state of affairs. They would turn the question around: why are the Anglo-Saxon nations so competitive? (It took a long time for my partner to come round to the view that the Swedish way wasn’t the default position for any society.)
All travel books, or books about foreign countries, say at least as much about where their authors are coming from as about where they are going. Of course this doesn’t make them any the less valuable, even to the peoples they are describing: ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us’. The Almost Nearly Perfect People must tell the Scandinavians a lot about themselves that they might not have noticed, because they haven’t been asking Booth’s question; and will serve as a stimulating introduction to the region for foreigners. If its general bias is obvious, and a bit Anglo-Saxon, it also rehearses the arguments against it, usually from academics he has interviewed in the Nordic countries, very fairly. It covers most of the topics you would expect it to, including Sweden’s political assassinations, the Icelandic banking collapse, Utøya, the Mohammed cartoons, immigration, and the Far Right. It is weak on culture; but then Booth thinks the welfare state is detrimental to high art. (He admits to one of his interviewees that this makes him a ‘typical British snob’.) It is also a thoroughly entertaining read, written brilliantly, and with a number of good jokes. Maybe that’s why the Danes liked it so much. They have a more robust sense of humour than the other Nordics.