It’s 7am and I’m at a business breakfast event the morning after the UK general election has resulted in an unexpectedly decisive victory for David Cameron’s Conservatives. I’m being quizzed by a trim Swedish man who’s looking over his glasses at me with a blend of scorn and bafflement. “But you have food banks for the poor in the UK! How can ANYONE vote for such a failed government?”
This is not a social workers’ convention. These are entrepreneurial Swedes. But they still, to a man and woman, cannot fathom why the UK has voted for another Conservative government. “It’s like Britain is going backwards,” another Swede says. “Do they not want a good healthcare system? Do they not want to be part of Europe? Austerity has long been discredited. What has happened there? It’s very sad.”
I’ve been part of the news business for 25 years. When I first started at a news agency I was right-of-centre politically. But being part of the news environment changed me. I moved to the left. It was clear to me that the challenges facing the UK and Europe were not simple ones. It was not a matter of black and white. The old me liked the comfort of black and white choices but time spent reporting on UK domestic news made me realise that complex problems demand complex answers. And the right has never been comfortable with shades of grey.
When we left the UK three years ago to start a new life, Sweden seemed to be the perfect destination for an unapologetic liberal like me. It’s always been at the forefront of social progressivism, almost to the point of parody. But I loved that willingness to be at the vanguard of liberalism. Sweden was the place I’d always wanted the UK to be – inclusive, community-driven and caring but dynamic and creative too.
But our stay here might well be curtailed. A key part of the Tory platform was the promise of a referendum on EU membership by 2017. Many think it was vital to winning back disaffected Conservatives who had embraced the anti-Europe Ukip.
This prospect, for my family, is genuinely scary. If the UK does hold a referendum and decides to exit the EU where does this leave us? Will we be forced to leave? Will we have to return to a country where a large number of the population lies about the party they vote for because they are ashamed at being so selfish? (There is no other explanation for the jarring discrepancy between hundreds of opinion polls and the actual result.)
This could be life-changing stuff. My two-year-old twins were born here. We received fantastic care in a northern Swedish hospital, far better than that my friends and relatives have endured in the UK recently.
My girls live in a wonderful part of the world. They overlook a lake when they play on their slide and have the run of three acres. Such a location in the UK would cost at least 12.7m SEK (£1m, $1.5m) but thanks to the sensible Swedes, who aren’t too prone to ludicrous property bubbles (at least not outside the major cities) we have a house here for less than 10 percent of that UK price.
Thinking further ahead, I don’t want my girls to have to pay for their university education, to be burdened by the levels of debt in the UK that now surpass some areas of the US. I want to live in a country that nurtures its young, that understands that you have to invest in youth, not demonise it or financially hamstring it.
I also want my girls to live in a country that values women. Sweden consistently ranks in the top five places to be a woman in the annual World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report. Why would I want to drag them back to the UK, a country that ranks below Lesotho and South Africa? Why would I want to do this to my girls? Why would any parent?
There isn’t much hope of a change for the better in the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe. Poisoned by the misinformation that pours from the brutish UK tabloids, most UK voters have little understanding of the damage EU withdrawal would inflict on their country. And although the scale of David Cameron’s victory may mean that he has to pander less to the extreme, more Europhobic elements of his party, he has made the in-out referendum a central plank of the Tories’ campaign. He really has to deliver now.
We can only hope that the referendum takes place after May 30th, 2017. Because that’s when we will have been here for five years. And that’s when we will become eligible for Swedish citizenship.