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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Don’t be too quick to write off the Swedish model

Every time Sweden makes international headlines, somebody somewhere announces the death of the Swedish model. David Crouch begs to differ

OPINION: Don’t be too quick to write off the Swedish model

“This is epochal, a broken possibility, the end of an era, a place we don’t live in any more.” So writes Guy Rundle, an Australian writer and commentator, about the result of Sweden’s election on September 11. In a similar vein, a French weekly magazine asks: “With this very convincing result for the far right, is this the end of the social-democratic model in Sweden?” 

Almost every time Sweden makes international headlines, for whatever reason, somebody somewhere announces that this is a historic turning point (as did American news outlet CNBC last week), the end of an era and the death of the Swedish model. “The idea of Sweden as a land of equal opportunity, safe from the plagues of extreme left and extreme right, is gone,” wrote Swedish author Elisabeth Åsbrink in the New York Times last week.

If I had ten Swedish crowns for every time someone had pronounced the demise of the Swedish model during my lifetime, I would not be very rich but I would certainly have a large jam jar moderately full of Swedish crowns. 

One of my favourite such declarations is from a man who has a genuine claim to be one of the brains behind the Swedish model itself. Rudolf Meidner was a Swedish economist and one of the co-authors in the early 1950s of the “Rehn-Meidner model” of centralised pay bargaining between unions and employers – seen by many as one of the distinctive foundations of Sweden’s economy, and one of the explanations for its success.

Meidner announced the death of his intellectual baby in an article called “Why did the Swedish model fail?”, written in 1993 after the country had experienced a crippling financial crisis and the free-market Moderates had come to power. “The Swedish system, balancing private ownership and social control, has broken down,” Meidner wrote. Ten Swedish crowns in my jam jar, please.

If anyone was qualified to pen an obituary for the Swedish model, surely it was Meidner. And in 1993, it seemed he had pretty good grounds for doing so. The close relationship between employers and unions that had underpinned post-war economic growth in Sweden had collapsed. 

The atmosphere of consensus and collaboration between the two “social partners” had been replaced by full-blown confrontation. First, in the mid-1980s. the engineers’ union broke away from central bargaining, then, a few years later, the national employers’ federation SAF closed down its central bargaining unit altogether. Kaput. Slut. Done and dusted. 

But behind the scenes, efforts were soon afoot to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. By the mid-1990s, strikes had broken out and salaries were spiralling upwards. Major Swedish companies now changed their tactics, while the government prodded union leaders to reach out to the employers again. The focus had to be on Sweden’s competitiveness, without which there could be no wage rises in the longer term.

The resulting deal between the two sides of Swedish industry, signed in March 1997, set out a shared vision for an economy that could deliver wage rises while strengthening industry by raising workers’ skills. The unions were back centre stage once more, and 25 years later the relationship is still strong. A survey of CEO attitudes to the unions in Sweden in 2017 showed an overwhelming majority in favour. 

While centralised wage bargaining marks an element of continuity in the Swedish model, there is more to it than this. The new model that emerged from the economic wreckage of the early 1990s has other defining characteristics. 

First, it is a shared creature of both left and right, created by political consensus. It is no longer true to say that the Swedish model is social democratic – keen-eyed business people and the liberal centre-right are happy to espouse its key features. 

The model has made it a priority to help women combine work with having a family. Starting in the 1960s from a need to fill a hole in the workforce, Swedish family policy was driven by the notion that sex discrimination is economically inefficient. This system was expanded by liberals and the right. In this century it has acquired a further justification, with governments of left and right espousing feminism as part of a wider ambition to be a beacon for human rights. 

Another feature of the model is the preponderance of industrial owners with a long-term view of business, hardwired through the system of dual shares. Instead of anonymous investment funds or small investors focused on making a quick buck, there are strong owners with a name, responsibility and a clear role. This approach is coupled with a management style that emphasises consensus and involvement. These factors have helped a small country create some of the biggest names in global industry. In the second decade of the millennium, they also combined to create a highly entrepreneurial environment. 

Armed with this understanding of what makes Sweden different, we are better equipped to assess whether the latest change in government will bury an economic model that has worked well for the past three decades, delivering growth, industrial peace and wages that have climbed inexorably since the mid 1990s

Will the new government cut Sweden’s generous parental benefits and encourage more women to stay at home? Not a herring’s chance in a pickle factory. Will it dismantle the relationship between unions and employers? Both sides are fiercely independent and hate government interference. Will it mess around with the ownership structure of Swedish industry? If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

If we cease to see Sweden as social democratic – the Social Democrats have had barely 30 percent of the vote since 2010 – let alone socialist, then we stop thinking that the “Swedish model” is dead simply because the Social Democrats have lost power. The far right’s influence on the new government’s attitude to immigration and immigrants is very concerning, but the Swedish model itself will survive. 

As the Financial Times noted: “Think twice before calling the electoral gains of the nationalist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats a dangerous turning point in Swedish and European politics. Democracy and the rule of law in Sweden are not at risk.”

The real task is to use the Swedish model’s strengths to solve the country’s many problems – not to throw the baby out with the far-right bathwater. 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Will the Sweden Democrats play nice or will they seek ‘revenge’?

A row over Swedish public television suggests that the room for compromise between the Swedish Democrats and their partners in a possible new coalition government will be limited, argues David Crouch.

OPINION: Will the Sweden Democrats play nice or will they seek ‘revenge’?

On Tuesday evening, SVT’s flagship news magazine Aktuellt included a seven-minute segment about the Sweden Democrats (SD). They invited Willy Silberstein, head of the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism, and PM Nilsson, the respected political editor of business daily Dagens Industri

This was an example of what TV journalists do all the time – get two sensible people with different views to explain and argue their positions. The approach allows viewers to be exposed to different opinions and make up their own minds.  

Silberstein said it was “frightening” that a party with Nazi roots had so much support in Sweden and expressed a concern that the SD’s strong showing at the polls would encourage racists. 

“I do not mean that the Sweden Democrats in any way call for violence against immigrants, but I think there is a risk that a climate will arise where many people who have racist attitudes feel a greater freedom to say things and possibly also act violently against minorities,” he said.

Nilsson respectfully and sympathetically argued that the SD kick extremists out of the party, and that the experience with similar parties in power in other Nordic countries is that they fail to make any fundamental changes to these liberal democracies. In some ways, it felt like the conversation I had with my Jewish relative that I described in my last column, although Nilsson failed to answer the real fear among ethnic minorities that the election result encourages racists. 

This innocuous bit of television provoked a furious outcry from the Sweden Democrats. Björn Söder, one of the SD’s top leaders and their candidate to become the new speaker in parliament, accused SVT of broadcasting “pure propaganda”. The public service broadcaster should be reported for bias and “fundamentally reformed”, he said.

Barely 48 hours after the polling stations closed, here was the SD with the gloves off, gunning for one of the party’s traditional enemies – journalists. 

In 2016, Linus Bylund, now the party’s chief of staff, called journalists “enemies of the people”. On election night, Bylund joked that he was looking forward to “a lot of what we like to call ‘journalist rugby’” – pushing journalists around, he explained. When Aftonbladet columnist Peter Kadhammar visited the SD stronghold of Hörby in 2020 and asked to read the town council’s official diary – a legal democratic right – two SD goons followed him and sat, arms folded, to intimidate him while he worked.

SD critics of the mainstream media have supporters inside the other right-wing parties that make up the loose electoral bloc that is on the verge of taking power. On Tuesday morning, Gunnar Axen, a venture capitalist and for 16 years a member of parliament for the Moderate party, tweeted: “A piece of advice to the Moderates and SD before the government negotiations regarding ‘public service’: A cancerous tumour is operated on completely, you leave nothing behind because then it starts to grow again.”

Söder’s outburst against the media should be a concern to anyone who consumes journalism in Sweden and relies on journalists to provide them with accurate information on which to lead their lives. But it also raises a bigger issue: to what extent will the party be prepared to compromise in the event that negotiations take place with the three other right-wing parties about forming a new government?

The Financial Times was one of the few foreign media allowed into the SD’s valvaka election vigil party on election night (The Local’s application for press accreditation was rejected). Its reporter Richard Milne wrote: “One word was on the lips of many Sweden Democrats MPs who spoke to the Financial Times: ‘It is revenge,” said Henrik Vinge, deputy leader. Linus Bylund, its chief of staff, added: ‘It is revenge because the other parties have treated us badly — even the three [rightwing] parties on our side.’”

It is easy to forget what it has cost SD politicians personally to get where they are today, and therefore how determined they are to pursue their ideological goals. Leading members have made sacrifices, they were in the movement when it was acceptable to make fun of them and even beat them up. Some have lost their positions or even their jobs for being SD members. Whether you think this was right or not, they have been isolated and bullied by the media and other Swedish institutions.

“These are investments that they have made, and they will not immediately become politically fatigued in negotiations, they are in it for the long term,” one experienced SD-watcher told me this week.

However, the SD have also seen what has happened to other, similar parties in the Nordic countries, and particularly the Danish People’s Party, whose role in propping up a minority conservative government has seen its support fall through the floor.

At the same time, in the municipalities it has controlled, the SD have behaved responsibly and generally stayed away from enacting hardcore policies. Moreover, this approach has seen its share of the vote grow by between 4 and 10 percentage points in all of these towns, which might have taught it that the softly softly approach works.

The election literature I received from my local SD was all about cuddly local issues and mentioned immigration only once – in sharp contrast to the election leaflet from the SD’s national arm.

Will the party take a similar softly, softly approach now it has the chance for power on the national stage, or will it want to show the full extent of its new political power and throw its weight around? If that includes taking revenge on the mainstream political parties and the media, be prepared for fireworks.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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