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British journalist fishes for the real Sweden

James Savage · 8 Jul 2009, 16:13

Published: 08 Jul 2009 16:13 GMT+02:00

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Sweden – the most successful society the world has ever seen. That was the startling view of one columnist on British paper the Guardian, impressed by Sweden’s high taxes, wealth redistribution and public services. Indeed, for many social democrats, this corner of Europe is as close to utopia as it is possible to come.

But as with all the other stereotypes - the blondes, the sexual permissiveness, the manic depression, the boozing and the darkness - the idea of Swedish perfection has often been due to people projecting their own agendas onto a country about which they know relatively little.

English journalist Andrew Brown is an exception. He lived in western Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s, and makes frequent trips back. His book, Fishing in Utopia, gives a more personal and nuanced account of the Swedish model, and this spring it won him the prestigious Orwell Prize for political writing.

Brown came to Sweden with his girlfriend in the late 1970s at the age of 22 – a love refugee, in the current vernacular. He settled first in Nödinge, a suburb of Gothenburg before moving to the rural town of Lilla Edet. Here he started a lifelong love-hate relationship with Sweden and its unique brand of social democracy.

When Brown moved to Sweden, he found the Swedish model at its zenith. Unions were strong and Olof Palme dominated the political scene. In one wonderful passage, Brown describes how Palme devoted his career in Swedish politics to ensuring that no Swede would ever need to experience the American combination of material poverty and boundless optimism.

“He succeeded so completely that when he died, he left a country where no one was poor and no one had room for optimism.”

Brown elegantly describes the perplexing, frustrating, enchanting and illuminating aspects of moving to Sweden, touching on his work in a timber yard, his marriage, his son and above all his love of fishing.

“I spent years not writing it because I wanted to get away from policy and make it more about people,” he says.

Sweden’s brand of politics and the deep social patterns that underpin it permeate even the most domestic chapters. Brown weaves together his experiences in the seventies and eighties with an account of a trip round modern Sweden. He reflects on how the country has changed due to globalisation, immigration and the slow wearing down of the Swedish model.

Brown’s first few months in Sweden were tough, not least because of his initial difficulties mastering the language.

“I was in hell, apart from Anita [his wife]. I wasn’t among people who spoke English. It drove me mad trying to work out the difference between ‘hans’ and ‘sin’ [Swedish for his and his/its].”

“Lots of my memories are of extreme loneliness. Fishing was a way to deal with that as well as to meet friends later.”

But loneliness, as he points out in the book, is at the heart of the Swedish experience.

“The idea of relating to strangers for pleasure did not figure largely,” he recalls in the book. It was not deliberate unfriendliness, but a society where people just didn’t know how to talk to each other.

Many aspects of the Sweden Brown describes remain recognisable today. Socialism, republicanism and tee-totalism were the foundations of society, and reminders of them were everywhere.

Like many foreigners today he was perplexed by the Systembolaget state alcohol monopoly, which in those days displayed graphic depictions of how alcohol could wreck your body.

The pervasive power of Arbetarrörelsen, the labour movement, was much in evidence in the 1970s. You could run your entire life through the labour movement: in addition to being governed by Social Democrats and being a member of an affiliated union, you could bank at the Coop bank, shop at Konsum and live in a flat owned by the workers’ movement.

While elements of this system remain in place, Brown insists that the Sweden of today is greatly changed:

“You don’t really hear words like nykterhet or solidaritet” today, he says, referring to the Swedish words for temperance and solidarity.

“The Swedish model had right-wing components,” like deference and authoritarianism he argues. This, he thinks, is something that many international fans of the Swedish model fail to recognise.

“You had internally-imposed conformity. It was quite easy for the Social Democrats to tweak the definition of what was acceptable.” There was no real acceptance of pluralism, he says. There was only one socially acceptable view on matters such as women’s rights and immigration.

Brown admits to mixed feelings about Swedish conformity: “When you’re inside it you hate it – it’s oppressive, but when you move away you see the virtues of it. I’ve given up trying to decide whether it’s good.”

Brown’s descriptions show how little – and how much - Sweden has changed in the past few decades.

Returning to Sweden in 2007, Brown found one thing had transformed Sweden more than anything else: immigration. Indeed, the numbers involved are astonishing – Sweden received 96,000 people in 2006 and 99,485 in 2007, the highest numbers since records began in the 19th century.

“I know it’s changed Sweden. In some ways it has made Sweden worse – more dangerous, more criminal. But it has also made it broad-minded and more interesting, and the food’s better."

“Really, though, I don’t know whether immigration has been good or bad.” What he does find problematic is that mainstream politicians don’t really know how to talk about the issue.

Story continues below…

“There’s a significant undertow and I don’t think the political class knows what to do about that. The other thing is that it’s being talked up by the Eurabia crowd.”

Despite his ambivalence towards immigration, he insists Sweden’s a lot less distinctive than it was, due to internationalisation, even to American television.

“There has been a general coarsening of society and a huge growth of inequality.”

But couldn’t the same be said of everywhere?

“I’m talking specifically about Sweden, partly because it used to be so much more deferential.”

But if Sweden has changed, Brown’s beautiful descriptions of Sweden’s wilderness in his passages about fishing give a sense of constancy.

“It was a way of writing about Sweden that has nothing to do with policy. Go in this way and there’s no socialism, no blondes and no ABBA.”

Quite a thought.

James Savage (james.savage@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

03:10 July 9, 2009 by Coalbanks
So I should just forget about Sweden & stay in Canada? Plenty of multi-culturalism benefits & problems, clean air, water, cheap food, fuel, good access to education... OH OH? Now all the Swedes will be coming here!
12:31 July 9, 2009 by Marc the Texan
Multiculturalism is really overrated. It's why I can go to the bank in Florida and the teller can not speak functional English. Nevermind the grocery store.
15:26 July 9, 2009 by Greg in Canada
The Sweden I knew was the Sweden of the 1970's. I haven't been over for a visit for a very long time. Maybe I won't. Perhaps its best for me to remember Sweden as it was.
19:36 July 9, 2009 by Nordland88
Sounds like a really excellent book. The comments fit in with what I've heard from a friend in Sweden. And also with experiences in Norway which had a similar culture.

One thing that presages a gradual disappearance of real Nordic culture is the fact that a majority of popular songs are now sung in American English. Tragic.
19:50 July 9, 2009 by natashafatale
@Marc the Texan: Multicultural is overrated? In what way would monoculturalism be preferable? Do you propose to deport all non-whites from the USA? You need to travel more. The world is FULL of foreigners, and they outnumber white US citizens by something like 30:1!

The vast majority of the people in Miami are bilingual, Anglo and Latino. Public schools in Miami and Dade County operate in both Spanish and English. Latinos will *pretend* that they do not speak English, in order to annoy anyone whom they perceive to be a racist redneck. Get some manners, and you will be surprised how many of us down here can be friendly and helpful.

With regard to Sweden, it will be interesting to see how things change as capital mobility and very inexpensive telecommunications deprive the Swedish state of the tax revenues needed to maintain its generous social welfare system.
21:43 July 9, 2009 by Greg in Canada
I believe that the "term" multi-culturalism" was originally coined as political policy in Canada in the early 1960's when the doors were openned to immigration from outside of Europe. Despite it being official government policy all these years, multi-culturalism in Canada hasn't been as successful or as popular as Canadian politicians would like the world to believe.

Canada had a two hundred year history of immigration that built the country, so I've never understood why Sweden would just all of a sudden declare itself "multi-cultural" when it was a homogeneous country of mostly one race, language and religion and no history of colonial expansion. If you're going to open the doors to outsiders then pick people who are likely to fit easily into the mainstream culture. Sweden clearly has not done that.
16:02 July 10, 2009 by GefleFrequentFlyer
Greg, Don't bother going back if it that subject will heartbreak you. I've seen the country degrade in drastic ways in just 7 years of my frequent annual visits. Every "traditional" Swede I meet weeps for the days Brown speaks about. His comments are spot on. Sweden is quickly being consumed by it's own self-rightoeusness.

Note to you Americans infatuated with Hope and Change, observe Sweden closely and ask if this would be good for the country.
17:32 July 10, 2009 by odinmp5
great book..

i somehow can relate, but my first stay in sweden was not long ago and the country was already ruined compared to what my granfather would tell.

inmigration can be good , if you pick the correct subjects. off course sweden did the oposit.
18:12 July 10, 2009 by jose_s
This is a good article but when the article states how immigrations changed the country it gives those extreme nationalists a green light to act out. Now more than ever we need to be careful with our statements. I believed it did change sweden but mostly because of how the government dealt with the issue. Maybe i'm taking this to literal......
23:37 July 10, 2009 by GefleFrequentFlyer

I agree that this does add fuel to the nationalist flame, but there is nothing stopping the government from dealing proper punishment to these hooligans while at the same time righting the ship by ramping up measure preventing the watering down of Swedish life to fit the immigrants imported views/assimilation rejection at the same time. It's a golden opportunity if you as me.
13:56 July 11, 2009 by Eye_Witness
Immigration never took place by accident, it was planed and traded against benefits. And now the opposition to immigration is again pursuing some benefits, just like this book would create some financial value to the author. Rest all are keyboard warriors including myself...hahahahahah
21:11 July 11, 2009 by here for the summer
best book i've read about sweden .. i missed the 80's but this book helped me understand the political history of sweden.
23:13 July 11, 2009 by Omaro
Some people here criticizing the idea of immigration and Multi-cultural society idea brought to Sweden in the 80`s but let `s be honest, Swedish people who planned that were aware of what the Swedish society will be after 50 or 100 years without immigration, death and birth rates are almost equal in Sweden and this thing is absolutely not good to keep the society growing in a normal level, the problem in immigration is that it depends upon quantity and not quality and that thing surprises me always, why doesn`t the Swedish migration board choose the people who will prove themselves to work, study, and contribute in the building of Sweden instead of bringing useless people all they care about is eating, sleeping and breeding., I will give u an example

I have an Iraqi friend, he is a doctor lives in Boden, he has been waiting for the residence since 1 year, during this period he finished the Swedish language courses and practicing in a hospital in Luleå, the people who are working in that hospital always encouraging him and show him their admire and respect for his serious intentions to live and work in Sweden, they even call the migration board several times to persuade them to grant him the residency, but what did the migration board do? they refused his application to get the residency and he is waiting to get back to Iraq. The strange thing is what kind of people the migration board wants?
00:26 July 12, 2009 by jack sprat
I believe there was a statement from a top Swedish politician a week or two back recommending that Sweden should be kind to the immigrant population, because it is just a matter of time before they out-number Swedes and run the country.

When that comes to pass he was hopeful that the kindness would be repayed to the minority native Swedes.

If or when that will happen I know not and surprisingly I dont hear it mentioned very much, but surely it must be of great concern to those natives who do care about the future of Swedish traditions,language and all the rest.
10:22 July 12, 2009 by Peanuts
The enemy of the Swedish Model is not an influx of immigrants, on the contrary many immigrants bring a work ethic and cooperative tone. More people paying taxes is hardly detrimental. The only real threat to the swedish model is inequality and a public which is incapable of holding its government to the policies for which it was elected. The influx of immigration could be used to exploit the Swedish people by subtle acceptance of inequality and the struggle to keep voters active and alert. also by enlisting a workforce which is unsure of its rights.
13:39 July 12, 2009 by conboy
I thought it was a thoughtful article - I have been here for some time now and I have seen a lot of changes mainly for the better. The largesse and competitive advantage of avoiding war for 200 years or more was bound to reduce with or without large-scale immigration. Childish xenephobia as expressed through the Sverige Demokraterna and the private views of many disregards this fact stupidly in my opinion. On saying that many immigrants have abused the system and have broken laws the statistics however would suggest that they tend to pay the price given their over representation in the country's gaols. ´Having said this I believe basically it is a humane well organized society so credit where credit is due. The long dark winter months are appalling however and should be banned by law ... it would be a great little country if someone remembered to open the sun roof every now and then...
23:13 July 12, 2009 by linjiechou
Sweden will be okay at least for another while. The problem Sweden is experinced obviously occured in many developed nations. The problem I believe is not only about the immigration-but rather as a conflict of culture.

Too different cultures are hard to handle. You can make people eat Max Burger, Wearing "cheap monday". But what you can't change is people's value. Many alien cultures put focus on other things than what the indigenous swedes believe. In certain cultures, people simply prioritize replication as an agenda for achieving its Holy agenda, while others see Sweden as a paradise for their ambtions since it is usually much harder to make it in their home country.
16:57 July 13, 2009 by coswede
Great article.

... "this is as good as it gets and that's good enough for me", conformity in food, clothes, thought, etc... An inability or unwillingness to communicate in depth, as not to offend or test.

when I see someone not seen in 10 years and their human "condition" is the same, it depresses me. By "condition" I mean their internal spark, their drive, that special something that makes you unique.

Sweden is a great summer visit. Unfortunately, the Swedish "model" seems to dissolve the human spirit.
19:07 July 13, 2009 by conboy
Thats rubbish after 19 years here there is still plenty of spirit left speak for yourself pal. If I was a Swede I'd be well pissed off reading this. Some Swedish characteristics are an irritation but what country does not have it's faults? Anyway Sweden is changing and as an immigrant I must say it has improved a lot in some respects.
19:29 July 13, 2009 by justanotherexpat
Ah but conboy - as an immigrant, would you say it has improved a lot because or in spite of your arrival? ;)
19:37 July 13, 2009 by conboy
Ah just "anotherexpat" it has improved without my help and I would not see my time here as an exercise in holding it back so I would suggest my presence here has been largely irrelevant for Sweden's development. Do you see your own sojourn here in those kind of terms? If so why? I am fascinated!
19:53 July 13, 2009 by coswede
conboy - native Swedes don't get pissed off, that emotion was removed from their DNA years ago,

you're an imigrant that has beneifitted from the Swedish model, good on you

native Swedes however act like they're on valium or dope, like sheep, it's a crumbling society held together by government solutions

a society that's prime for someone with the next big idea
20:01 July 13, 2009 by conboy
I've a feeling that won't be you if you keep up with that attitude.
02:02 July 14, 2009 by Goodall
I read this book a year ago whilst living in London with my Swedish girlfriend. The experiences that Brown writes about are starkly similar to what I am experiencing, now living in Sweden. The frustration of not understanding much of what people talk about at work; the feeling of guilt when buying beer and wine at system bolaget; and the bafflement at the conformity of most Swedes. It can be an extremely frustrating country to live in at times, but like Brown, I am still undecided as to whether the state imposed egalitarian model is the right one to follow, whilst at the same time I am growing more and more fond of this strange country.

Fishing in Utopia is not only about immigration and political policy, it also accounts Brown's love/hate relationship with a country, like many others, that must brace itself in the wake of globalisation - it's a fascinating read.
08:46 July 14, 2009 by conboy
Thoughtful post Sweden is having difficulty in dealing with massive immigration but so far has done quite well to accomodate it compared to say Britain in my opinion. The push for conformity among Swedes I would suggest has it's roots in the jäntelag and the feudal village culture which still remains here. "Alla väl göra så har". We live in a cruel world and Swedes feel as ill equipped to face it as many others.
10:51 July 14, 2009 by justanotherexpat
conboy - claws back in - was fishing - you bit ;) Nothing personal. I don't think my presence in Sweden has any bearing whatsoever on its improvement or detriment, although I would say that the overall effect of Sweden upon me personally has be highly beneficial. That's a big difference and a very different statement/sentiment - I'm sure you'll agree.

(Oh and not every post on TL is an attack :D )
00:00 July 15, 2009 by Muad'Dib
Although I dont live in your country, here is my opinion and message to you:

you have a very beautiful country, with a history you can be proud of.

I do understand the deficiencies, namely, the unbridled capitalism has been undermining you system from withing and slowly rotting it. That's the most striking obsevation that I have found and thet is my greatest concern and my utmost fear about your future.

BTW, many of you, the natives, might not appreciate the ingenious workings of your system, until you actually get out of your country, at least for a while.

Indeed, as in the whole of Scandinavia, the effect of the Jante Law is omnipresent, but if you have a collectivist mentality, like perhaps most of the Scandinavians do, then you'll not just be able to put up with it, but you will actually adore it and fully embrace it.
00:27 July 15, 2009 by sshea
The book makes an interesting read but why should they justify their social model to the world. So they find it difficult to talk about certain things, discuss immigration...so what. They are not the only nation in the world with issues, surely. Perhaps something needs to be said for being reserved and thoughtful. I have been living in the UK since the early 90s (originally from the Balkans) and here people think if they are offensive that means 'honest' and 'democratic'. And what good does this do? It sells newspapers better and opens up a debate...yet another one. In the meantime the gap between the rich and the poor grows bigger and bigger and that is the real danger to any society. I think Sweden needs to worry about that more than anything else. The Swedish way of life will be something to envy for and learn from in the years to come. I just wish people could stop having a dig at them all the time. People should look at the problems in their own back gardens first.
00:46 July 15, 2009 by Willy
Actually, Sweden was one of few countries in Europe without serfdom. Swedish peasants owned their land. Peasant culture alright, but not feudalism!
00:50 July 15, 2009 by jack sprat
Well depends what you mean by "accomodate",...yes in Sweden they have placed most of them in reasonable accomodation in apartment blocks in their own little seperate worlds, but have given little or no thought to the major issue of integration and therein lies the main problem.

In the UK there are encouraging signs with regard to integration in lots of places and many have fitted in well with the British lifestyle.

Yes there are areas where it is not so good and no doubt much more still needs to be done, but in Sweden they have not even begun to face up to the integration problem, but there again facing problems head on here seems to be something to be avoided at all costs.
01:33 July 15, 2009 by here for the summer
The book is good and much more than this article can describe. The style reminds me of the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" .
06:59 July 15, 2009 by Zonob
Haters like you are the real threat to this country.
07:48 July 15, 2009 by conboy
May the force be with you one and all. May the road rise before you and may there be a glass free chicken in every pot in the land. May Swedish waters be free of Russian U-boats and may pavee stone masons finally lay a paving stone that does not cause a China syndrome alarm among Stockholms tax paying suburbia (cough) . It's a beautiful morning and I feel the love coming on!!!
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