‘Swedish politics? It’s effective but dull’

British leftists hail Sweden as a happy, welfarist utopia. In a week of riots in Stockholm, author Karin Svanborg-Sjövall says reality is different.

Nathalie Rothschild

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While the left in Britain and beyond seems to have an incurable crush on the Swedish Model, the apparently brilliant Swedish welfare state, the political climate in Sweden itself has shifted. And these transformations, which are challenging the ideal of a cradle-to-grave welfare state, began long before the current centre-right coalition government took power in 2006, as Karin Svanborg-Sjövall, a welfare policy expert at Swedish think tank Timbro, explains in her book on the ‘new Swedish welfare model’.

Here, Svanborg-Sjövall talks to Nathalie Rothschild about the state of Swedish welfare, why Swedish politics is effective but dull, and what Britain stands to gain from introducing free schools.

Nathalie Rothschild: Leftists in Britain tend to hold up the Swedish welfare state as an ideal. Why is the Swedish model so celebrated abroad?

Karin Svanborg-Sjövall: Partly, of course, it is because other European countries, including Great Britain, are currently in an economic crisis and they are examining their own welfare states and considering how to introduce changes in order to bring down costs. So I think they are looking for exceptions, and Sweden has been an exception because our economy has remained stable.

I also think that the Swedish welfare model, in a pretty classic way, is a political compromise, which means that British politicians on the right and left can find parts that they like. So, from the right there is interest in how we have introduced market-based solutions as a way of creating greater efficiency and allowing for consumer influence. From the left, one appreciates how we have still maintained the same financing model. Even if Sweden has introduced market-based solutions, the financing of services has not changed – it is entirely based on public financing.

Another aspect that many find interesting about the Swedish model is that even if we do argue a lot over for-profit welfare, we have had few conflicts. I think that is something that many voters at least find attractive – the fact that we do not have the same political clashes here as elsewhere. At the same time, I personally find it refreshing to go to London precisely because there is more conflict and argument there. I find there is a more honest discussion of different alternatives. Swedish politics is often effective, but it is terribly dull!

NR: How does the idealised image of the Swedish model and of the harmonious Swedish society measure up to reality? There has been much surprise abroad, for instance, about the riots that have been taking place in Stockholm suburbs this week.

K S-S: I guess it is always the case that things look better at a distance.

I am not shocked by the unrest in Stockholm. First of all, it is not the first time it has happened. But also, these events were not hard to predict and they are in many ways based on the problems that come with this welfare model we have chosen in Sweden, which is fundamentally a Socialist model.

We have vulnerable areas with high unemployment rates in Sweden, too. There are large groups of people in these areas who never enter the labour market and that is partly because we have had such an incredibly generous immigration policy, which not everyone is aware of. I think that is a good thing, but it becomes problematic in that we at the same time have a model which is based on the unions having the right to impact wage rates so that entrance-rate salaries have become very high.

In general, we have a welfare system which is not inclusive, as many believe. It suits those who are already in the system very well, but there are very high thresholds to enter in the first place and, of course, those who live in these suburbs where the riots are happening are hit the hardest. They may have come to Sweden late in life, they may not have Swedish language skills, they may have had a hard time making it through school, and so on. So they are left out.

NR: So, what characterises the ‘new Swedish welfare model’ that you describe in your book?

K S-S: I would describe it as a compromise between an equality ideal which is rock solid in Swedish politics and some type of insight that state-based solutions and large public-welfare systems do not hold up unless you also create ways for people to exercise some kind of influence. It is a classic mixed-economy compromise.

The new Swedish welfare model also emerged at a time, in the 1990s, when we were in a situation which is similar to the one that Britain is in now. In other words, we were in a deep financial crisis with a big state deficit and we had a welfare system which was on the verge of collapse, both because it was too expensive and because people were frustrated about being stuck with this system. So at this time, freedom-of-choice solutions were introduced in the sphere of healthcare and education, for instance.

NR: You describe in your book how freedom-of-choice reforms have been introduced and developed by Social Democrat governments, too, and not exclusively by the right. So has the Swedish left abandoned the idea of a big state?

K S-S: I don’t think so. There are still strong currents within Social Democracy in favour of everything being run and planned on a societal level. Also, large parts of Sweden’s competition-based welfare provision is still steered by politicians who put services out to tender. These are not free markets. We have municipal politicians who take decisions about who should get different commissions and so on. So even if one allows private actors to perform the services, still to a large extent it is state-controlled.

I think the fact that things have gone in this direction has had more to do with it being pragmatically necessary in order to rescue the system rather than it coming out of some conviction that liberal solutions are better. But I think we are also seeing a return of ‘profit scepticism’ now, and radicals are rolling back the progress made on this issue. So there is still very much a tug of war going on within the labour movement.

NR: Why has the organisation and financing of childcare been a key dividing line between left and right in Sweden?

K S-S: When it comes to childcare, this was the first soft service for which private options emerged in the 1980s. Previously, competition had only been allowed for technical services, for things like snow ploughing and chimney sweeping. The left at the time – and in this respect it may be true that there has been an ideological shift within the left – believed that childcare was crucial for creating a Socialist person. The idea was to start moulding a certain kind of citizen already in childhood and so it was believed that the state should have a monopoly on childcare.

At the same time, that is an explanation for why it didn’t go too well because this is not something that the wider population has ever accepted. This is a very radical utopia around how society should be organised and what the social goals should be. So once there was more honesty around how the left viewed childcare in particular, Social Democrats were very upset, too.

NR: And in the sphere of education, one of the former Social Democrat leader Olof Palme’s favourite phrases was ‘Kentucky Fried Children’ – a reference to the US school system. But there has been a radical school reform in Sweden since then and now the UK has also introduced free schools, a combination of US Charter schools and Swedish friskolor. What would you say to Brits who are sceptical of free schools?

K S-S: Well, as far as I understand, the results have been mainly good so far and that’s hardly surprising. If you agree that education is an extremely important issue for society, then it is also reasonable to allow different types of educational solutions. Education is not just about creating a citizen. Instead, there are many fundamental reasons for having a school system which allows for different ways of operating, which allows for innovation and diversity.

If you have just one system in place then there will always be those who fit in but there will also be a whole bunch of people who do not fit in and I would say that having centrally-controlled schooling, as you do in large parts of the world, is a pretty inhumane approach to education and children.

NR: One argument against free schools has been that such a system creates new dividing lines and that privileged children, or those with parents who are very engaged in their schooling, still tend to go to the better schools.

K S-S: Sure, this happens, but can anyone seriously claim that when there was just one option available and freedom of choice was not there that it would not have mattered for a child whether their parents cared about them or not? That difference will always be there, but one way of challenging it is to give the pupil the chance to get out of his or her social context by providing a system based on freedom of choice where the pupil has the potential to access better education. And that is not possible if the child is dependent on the parents being able to afford to move to an area with better schools.

So I don’t have much respect for that view. I think it is a strange argument to make in Sweden and I think it is an absurd argument to make in Britain, where there was always freedom of choice in education – but only for those who can afford it. The great difference between the Swedish and British free-school systems is that in Sweden the schools are not allowed to take fees, so that means that the freedom of choice applies to all parents, regardless of income.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked.

Karin Svanborg-Sjövall will be speaking at the spiked drinks event ‘Time for a serious debate about the welfare state’ in London on Monday 3 June. See the spiked events page for more information.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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