UK swoons over Swedish policy smörgåsbord

UK swoons over Swedish policy smörgåsbord
British politicians have a "big crush" on Sweden, according to the Economist magazine, a love affair shared by both the left and right despite lingering questions about how much of what works in Sweden can work in the UK.

Friday’s edition of the Economist contains an article entitled “A big crush on Sweden” which outlines why “many British politicians look longingly” at the country’s policies and the success they’ve had.

“Over the past two decades governments led by the leftist Social Democrats or the Moderates have introduced—with cross-party support—reforms to Swedish education, health care, pensions and tax,” the Economist explains.

“These have made a rich and well-run country even more so: on any ranking of national wealth, health and happiness Sweden comes close to the top.”

While Prime Minister David Cameron and his conservative Tory colleagues admire Sweden’s success in cutting taxes and privatizing parts of the welfare state, Labour head Ed Miliband is inspired by the country’s “superb” childcare and smooth-running public services.

Nicholas Aylott, a British-born political science professor at Södertörn University near Stockholm, said it’s easy to see why Sweden remains the object of UK politicians’ affections.

“There’s really something here for everybody,” he told The Local.

“Market-oriented conservatives marvel at the macroeconomic policy reforms and reforms in public services like free schools, but there’s also a lot left for centre progressives in terms of attitudes toward the family and the changing perceptions of traditional family roles.”

It’s also important to remember, Aylott points out, that Sweden’s ability to withstand the economic woes that have plagued the rest of Europe has also turned heads.

“Sweden has done well during a time characterized by a rather miserable economic climate,” he said.

However Alyott added that he’s “instinctively sceptical” about how much of Sweden’s success can be transferred to Britain.

While the Economist warns that the British politics lack Sweden’s history of collaboration and consensus, Finance Minister Anders Borg hints that trying to be like Sweden without the country’s brand of equality could backfire.

“If you’re not able to keep your society together you will have conflicts which will undermine your legitimacy,” he told the magazine.

Alyott points to Sweden’s publicly-funded, privately-managed free schools, which Britain has tried to emulate, as an example that demonstrates what works in Sweden may not work the same way in the UK.

“In Sweden, they’ve worked relatively well, giving parents increased choice and injecting a healthy dose of competition among education purveyors,” he said.

“But in the UK, which is a more class-oriented society, it seems that free schools are mostly the preserve of chattering classes, benefiting primarily upper-middle class and upper-class families, as well as some religious groups.”

Aylott doubts free schools in the UK will have the same “broad effect” they’ve had in Sweden, which has a much more equal and compressed society.

But just because certain policy’s effects in Sweden may not be replicated in the UK, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth experimenting.

“It would be equally absurd to assume everything in Sweden is totally irrelevant,” he said.

“It’s always worth looking into what works and trying to see what might work.”

David Landes

Follow David Landes on Twitter

Member comments

Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.