Extract from one of Alan's recent editorials
on The Recusant relating to this launch event
News from Sweden
This writer was in Norrköping, Sweden during the past week to launch his Sweden-themed collection The Tall Skies/ De Höga Himlarna (Waterloo Press), supported by Wigan-based poet Peter Street reading from his latest collection Listening To The Dark (The Penniless Press). Reporters from two local newspapers, the left-leaning Folkbladet and the centre (-right)/ ‘moderate’ Norrköpings Tidningar (‘NT’) turned up to conduct interviews, and this writer made a point to both papers of expressing his current concern that the ‘neoliberal experiment’ presently in its second term under the Moderate-led Swedish coalition government –which are essentially the equivalent of Blairite ‘New’ Labour in a country whose political paradigm is (still) significantly further to left than in woefully right-wing England– has the potential to irreparably destabilise and undermine the great and, for the most part, hugely successful Swedish Social Demokratisk hegemony of the previous seven decades.
The historically left-wing (though towards the end of its epic tenure in government, slightly more liberalised) Social Democrats introduced the impeccable Swedish Welfare State, known as folkhemmet (“the people’s home”) almost simultaneously to Clement Attlee’s Settlement, in the late Forties, and rooted in the Swedish psyche the enviably humanitarian principle of samforstånd (“mutual understanding”).
This Swedish Settlement is what has essentially made Sweden the most admired social democracy in Europe, and although very much more than its mere vestiges are in evidence still in 2013, in spite of the centrist Moderate party near the end of its second term in office, even this frequent English visitor to said progressive country has noticed some tectonic shifts rumbling to the surface in the past couple of years in particular. Most notably, a visible rise in street homelessness, something he did not witness in Sweden (not even in its capital Stockholm) on his earlier visits to the country between 2007-09; and yet again he is reminded that wherever neoliberalism and laissez faire start to penetrate, while some see their private wealth increasing, all see, or choose to ignore, a simultaneous rise in others’ poverty.
So this writer made a particular point of emphasizing to the reporter from the Moderate-supporting local newspaper that if Sweden goes the way of Thatcherism, as the UK did in the Eighties, it will quite possibly lose everything good and socially cohesive that it has built up over half a century, and quite likely, irreversibly; he added to the reporter that “in England we have a saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”! He elaborated that Swedish social democracy had clearly worked for the majority, if not for all the people of Sweden, for seventy-odd years – so why start tinkering with it now and needlessly start heading down the socially divisive, atomistic route of privatisation of services and utilities route…?
Thatcherites will still argue that by 1979 the UK had little choice, as the so-called “sick man of Europe” (though a “sick man” which sported one of the most economically and socially equal countries in Europe, so it couldn’t have been that “sick”!), but to start de-nationalising industries and “selling off” its “silver” –though we on the left would argue that this was facilitated at the cost of destroying entire communities, particularly in the North, and socially and psychically scarring our nation irreparably; but when Sweden, in its pure social democratic form, has been the envy of Europe for decades on decades of almost uninterrupted social progressiveness and economic levelling, what on earth do the Moderates think they’re doing so needlessly undermining it all now? Because that is what they are doing: almost in parallel to the UK government at this time –though by no means to the same fiscally savage and rhetorically brutalising way– the Moderates are attempting to play divide-and-rule with the Swedish electorate by incrementally undermining the principle of folkhemmet, “making work pay” by offering those in work tax cuts on the back of cutting benefits for the unemployed.
The result: the steady rise in street homelessness which this writer has been noticing in the last couple of years, and which has reminded him –though to a less epidemic degree– of the same familiar pattern that developed under Thatcher in the Eighties, resulting in the international disgrace that was “Cardboard City” (a legacy which is now of course resurgent under the “Thatcher’s Children” of the current Tory-led coalition thanks to the disgraceful attack on the welfare state, the social cleansing of the poorest in society through “gentrification” of inner-cities, and the resultant rise in food banks throughout the UK almost in duplication of the similar rise in soup kitchens in the Eighties and Nineties).
Unfortunately, the Moderates in Sweden have managed to secure two terms in office on the back of benefit cuts, literally funding an extra 1000 kronor (£100) per month to each working person’s pay packet via reductions in income for the unemployed. So far, so laissez faire. But the one hope for the Sweden is the simple fact that theirs is a closer-knit society than the UK; and the hope for the Swedes themselves is that their national mentality is far less individualistic than the British. For instance, one ancestral meme of the Swedes is the concept of lagom, an old Viking term which basically means “moderation”, that “enough is sufficient”, so is very much the antithesis to the capitalist/Thatcherite mantras of being ‘on the make’ and wanting “to get on” (which implies some sort of Faustian acquisitiveness for greater wealth and power rather than anything as wholesome and simple as wanting to provide one’s family) –lagom emphasizes the importance of sharing, of taking only what one needs and no more, for the common good of the ‘tribe’.
As an admirer of Swedish social democratic society, this writer sincerely hopes that Sweden will weather what will hopefully turn out to be, in the end, a temporary political aberration on the map of Swedish progressivism, and is heartened by the fact that apparently many Swedes at this time are beginning to get a bit fed up with some of the more aggressive experiments of the Moderate-led government, such as accelerated privatisations where they are quite clearly neither desirable nor required. Again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, because by doing so that will only break what is working perfectly well and replace it with something that will only work for a self-enriching minority, as in the UK. Thankfully the Swedish trades unions have not yet been emasculated of their industrial powers as they have been over decades in the UK, and the bus and tram drivers were holding a midsummer strike over working hours and conditions –always, in this writer’s view, a healthy sign of a true democracy, when workers have sufficient muscle to flex in response to neoliberal/capitalist meddling.
The latest on Swedish politics is that, according to The Guardian, ex-Union man Stefan Löfven, the new leader of the Swedish Social Democrats, is rising in popularity and his party currently enjoying an 8-point lead over the ruling 'centre-right' ('centre' in UK terms) Moderates. Imagine having a Union leader becoming Labour leader in the UK? There was a time decades ago when that was still possible, but not anymore sadly. The Swedish unions have far more power and influence than ours in the UK, since they have not yet had to face their 'Thatcher moment' (and Heaven -or rather Valhalla- forbid that ever happening!). When this writer was in Sweden last month there was a bus and tram strike in Norrköping: always a healthy sign of a robust industrial democracy.
Some on the Swedish Left are warning that in spite of his union credentials, Löfven is however a pragmatist and more 'centre' than 'centre-left' in his views -however, in Swedish terms this means he is basically still centre-left. Löfven has already made it clear he wishes to form a kind of transnational alliance with Ed Miliband and Labour, as well as reaching out across the world to form a strong global culture of trade unions. Löfven has already said:
Employees have to understand that they need to change constantly... But how do you make an individual want to change? You do it by creating stability and confidence: if I know that I can lose my job and survive, I'm more willing to see through that change.
Look at what happened in Bangladesh... We are buying clothes from a place that needs labour, but not the kind of labour where you can be killed in one collapse because the building was too bad: that shows that workers all over the world need to have the ability to form a trade union and bargain collectively.
The rhetoric is good, but while Löfven is still open to some privatisation, in Sweden there has ever been a far more amicable and cooperative relationship between the unions and business -indeed, in this sense, a kind of 'corporate' mentality in the truest sense of the word: i.e.: 'collective' or 'a body of people'. Let's wait and see next year if and when the Social Democrats return to power after their longest absence since the Thirties, and then we can in time judge as to whether Löfven will prove his worth as the prime minister to halt the entirely unnecessary and unsuccessful 'neoliberal' experiment of the Moderates.
A.M. 15 July 2013