The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle, by Michael Booth, Jonathan Cape, 416 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0224089623
Wherever you look, the Nordic countries top the lists, the good lists that is, the ones which show what progressive, wealthy, honest, egalitarian and successful societies they are. And if that isn’t enough these small chilly countries on the edge of Europe have started to successfully market their culture abroad too, so that people in Ireland and the UK have suddenly become acquainted with the gloomy streetscapes of Copenhagen, Stockholm and Malmö thanks to series such as The Killing, Wallander, The Bridge and Borgen. There have in fact been so many good things to say about Scandinavia recently that a backlash appears to be under way if Michael Booth’s hatchet job on the Nordic miracle, The Almost Nearly Perfet People, is anything to go by.
But how different are these societies? And, besides gloomy streets, what has Ireland in common with that most ultra-modern social democratic state of all, Sweden? Back in the early noughties when I started work on a PhD on Swedish social democracy in the twentieth century my first reaction would have been not much at all. Despite a lot of interest from left-leaning people, I became adept at dismissing any suggestion that either the Irish or the British could learn useful lessons from the Nordic experience. As I busily researched the cultural, religious and historical roots of social democracy I felt that I knew enough to pooh-pooh the thesis that Sweden or any of the other Nordic countries could serve as some sort of template for would-be social democrats in othercountries. The Nordic model came about due to the confluence of state Lutheranism, homogeneity and a peculiarly gradual path from an authoritarian and hierarchical monarchy to a highly egalitarian democratic society. Not only that, but nationalism and a unique set of national myths played a key role in developing these complex state-run systems, and became embedded in national narratives to such a degree that it’s hard to imagine a Swede describing his or her sense of identity without reference to the country’s social welfare system.
Where Sweden was a trailblazer even by Nordic standards in its attempt to create a unique and ultra-modern social security system Ireland had fewer options in the early decades of independence. Crucially, the new state did not inherit a manufacturing base of any significance and the potential to sell the country’s agricultural produce to markets outside the UK was negligible. So you might conclude, as I did, that Sweden and Ireland do not exactly resemble twins separated at birth. In fact, it makes more sense to hypothesise that these two peripheral European countries have followed development trajectories that have propelled them in opposite directions.
Nonetheless, during the nearly four years I spent researching my dissertation I encountered much that was familiar in the Swedish lurch towards creating a social democratic state. This tug of the familiar was particularly acute when I studied the prequel to the Swedish economic miracle, the period before the emergence of social democracy at the end of the nineteenth century. After losing all her overseas territories in the first decades of that century, Sweden languished in genteel penury on the edge of Europe, with a tiny elite ruling a country of impoverished peasants. When Thomas Malthus, the father of population studies, needed examples of profligate populations reproducing beyond their means, he used the Swedes as his chief example, comparing them unfavourably to their neighbours in Norway, who married late and had fewer offspring. The famines that swept through Sweden in the nineteenth century did not cause anything like the same level of social disruption as the Great Famine, but bouts of crop failures followed by starvation continued until the end of the century and the mid- to late 1860s became known as “the great hunger years” in both northern Sweden and Finland. Over a quarter of a million people died in northern Scandinavia during this period and images of victims look uncannily similar to those from the Irish famine. And these periods of starvation are not that remote: memories of rural hunger still live on in Sweden today: my partner’s maternal grandmother remembers her brother pitifully begging for bread in southern Sweden during the First World War when she was a child.
Then there’s emigration. As in Ireland, a large percentage of rural Swedes chose the boat to America rather than remain on tiny holdings which could barely support their families. Altogether about a fifth of the population, around a million people, crossed the Atlantic and for a period Chicago became in ethnic terms Sweden’s second most populous city. Nearly 400,000 left between 1880 and 1889 alone.
Just as in Ireland, rural depopulation was regarded as having a debilitating effect on the country’s future progress. In 1883, at the height of the debate on emigration in Sweden, national bard Carl Snoilsky wrote a poem which includes these apocalyptic lines: “Every shipping line which crosses the Atlantic / is marked by red as I see it / Since this is our heart blood which flows / Out of open sores towards the West.” Twenty years later, another poet echoed Snoilsky’s lines with similar imagery: emigration was bleeding the nation to death; its best people, the peasants, were abandoning her:
Thousand red droplets, Sweden,
O, tomorrow as yesterday,
Thousands, thousands, thousands more!
Who shall light the cottage lamps?
Empty cottages stand in darkness,
Your whole life is ebbing, Sweden,
from your open sore
The reasons for these massive levels of emigration from Sweden were similar to those which encouraged the Irish to leave their shores. Apart from the lure of cheap farmland and relative prosperity in the USA, Sweden had by the second half of the nineteenth century developed an efficient railway system which could easily transport people from poverty-stricken rural provinces to cities such as Gothenberg, where they could catch the boat to America. The rush to leave was so great that the Swedish government, fearing that much of the country would be left uninhabited, imposed strict limitations on emigration. This however simply encouraged more Swedes to sail west from foreign ports, such as Copenhagen or Hamburg. To stem this haemorrhaging, at the start of the twentieth century, the Swedish state started offering cheap long-term loans to the impoverished rural population. This conservative scheme was called the National Home Policy (egnahemspolitiken) and its goal was to substantially increase the number of smallholders, provide cheap labour in the countryside and reduce the influence of socialism. Its ideological baggage was right wing, anti-modern and anti-urban but it is often referred to as a forerunner of the active state interventions carried out by the social democrats (SAP). Historian Nils Edling, who wrote a book on the policy, dubbed it a “conservative colonisation” and pointed out that the metaphor of the good “home” which formed the basis of the National Home Policy closely resembled the key metaphor of the People’s Home (folkhem), which became a social democratic slogan in the 1920s and has remained a byword for the Swedish welfare model ever since.
One of the other interesting consequences of this flight from the land was that the world of the smallholders, the disappearing peasant class, was idealised. While novels and poems commemorated the role of the peasants throughout the nineteenth century, the twentieth century gave birth to a whole new film genre. During their peak in the 1940s and 1950s so-called peasant films became a staple of the Swedish film industry and agrarian romances attracted far bigger national audiences than, for example, the highbrow films of Ingmar Bergman. After the abandonment of thousands of small farms in the postwar period their popularity is usually explained as a form of nostalgia for a simpler, rural existence that was quickly disappearing. For an Irish person, they resemble a combination of The Quiet Man and sentimental rural-based US television series such as Little House on the Prairie ‑ albeit with a bit more nudity (this was after all Sweden). The significant other is usually a dark “gypsy” traveller who charms the invariably blond farmer’s daughter and ends up in a fistfight with her equally light-haired beau. Plots typically revolved around who would inherit the land and whether the younger son should marry his sweetheart or the less pretty girl from the neighbouring farm; the dramatic climax was frequently signalled by a burning barn or mill. I suspect that if Ireland had developed an indigenous film industry during the 1940s and 1950s it would have made movies similar to these.
This sentimentalisation of a mythical rural past is a cultural trait that the Swedes share with the Irish and can be exemplified by the cultivation of the traditional red Swedish cottage which matches closely the iconic status of the thatched cottage in Irish mentality. There is nothing quite like this in the other Nordic countries, and just as in Ireland its roots can be traced back to nineteenth century romanticism and indirectly the Celtic revival, which began in England in the eighteenth century. The modern image of both the Viking and the Nordic peasant was shaped by Swedish writers during the first half of the nineeteenth century under the influence of James Macpherson’s bogus retellings of myths about the bard Ossian, his father, Fingal, and brother, Oscar, and the movement they formed ‑ the Gothic Society ‑ bears comparison to the somewhat later Gaelic League.
While the nineteenth century provides echoes for anyone with a knowledge of Irish history, it is the experience of both countries in the twentieth century that is particularly intriguing. The Swedish national strike and lockout of 1909 foreshadows the Dublin Lockout four years later. Although it lasted only a little over three months, only half as long as its Irish counterpart, it involved at its height more than 300,000 workers from many different industries and occupations under the umbrella of the main blue-collar trade union organisation Landsorganisationen (LO) and was, like the Dublin Lockout, by far the biggest national labour dispute ever experienced in the country. Just as in Dublin, the Swedish strike ended with in a humiliating defeat for the workers and a much weakened labour movement, but in both cases employers had learned an expensive lesson and would in future refrain from entering into such polarising national disputes.
The differences between both events were also stark. Although violence certainly played a role during the Swedish lockout ‑ shots were fired at strikebreakers at one point and police frequently used force to break up protests ‑ no one was killed and no street-fighting force equivalent to the Citizen Army was ever formed. The fledgling Social Democratic Party was of course firmly on the side of the strikers, whereas in Ireland the nationalist movement was divided, with conservative property-owning elements opposing and “advanced” and intellectual elements tending to be supportive. At this point, we can see that Ireland and Sweden diverged significantly: nationalism in Sweden was defined by the traditional axis of church, monarch and burgher class while the radical element consisted mainly of the emerging working class and to a lesser extent the new urban middle class.
Did these two countries have anything in common during the first half of the twentieth century? While the new Irish state often reflected the fervent Catholicism widespread in the country, the Swedes were embracing modernity and secularism. Whereas the Swedes displayed their avant-gardism in the language of functionalism at the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930, the Irish celebrated the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. Instead of futuristic structures heralding a new age of technology and science the Irish organisers constructed replicas of ancient round towers to evoke the golden age of saints and scholars. Differences of this kind have sometimes led to a superficial characterisation of Sweden as modern and independent Ireland as backward. But it is worth recalling that the popular Swedish cinema celebrated a backward-looking and nostalgic view of rural life and in Ireland deValera invested scarce resources in an institute devoted to the study of advanced mathematics headed by the renowned physicist Schroedinger. It could be argued that both countries were addressing similar problems, but in ways which their respective histories and cultures made possible.
Norway broke away from Sweden in 1905, while Ireland lost six counties in 1920: in both cases the result was a remarkable degree of ethnic, religious and cultural homogeneity in the remaining national territory. The fascist movement made large inroads in both rural Sweden and Ireland but the democratic systems in both countries proved robust enough to withstand the pressure from the far right as well as from ultra-conservative völkisch agrarian parties. And in the fateful year 1932, two very different parties came to power in each country. In Sweden the SAP finally took centre stage after many years in the wings, without dispelling a deep suspicion in the establishment that they were irremediable Marxist revolutionaries; in Ireland Fianna Fáil also emerged from a time in the wilderness with many believing that they were still recalcitrant revolutionaries. Both parties would come to dominate their respective political systems throughout the remainder of the twentieth century to a degree not experienced in any other European state. Both came to prominence after many years of instability. Sweden experienced nine different governments in the space of thirteen years prior to 1932, while Fianna Fáil came to power in an Ireland still recovering from the aftermath of civil war.
And, as mentioned, both parties came in from the political periphery to experience unprecedented success. The SAP (the Swedish Social Democratic Party) received between 40 and 55 per cent of the votes in all elections between 1930 and 1990, making it one of the most successful political parties in the history of European democracy. Fianna Fáil could boast a similar level of support: its share of the popular vote never fell below 40 per cent in a general election between 1932 and 1992, and averaged above 45 per cent during that period. Both parties appealed to a broad range of voters. Even more importantly, they successfully maintained support through periods of major social and political change such as the travails of steering a neutral course during the Second World War and the subsequent adaptation to the dynamics of the postwar environment.
Both parties moved decidedly towards the centre on achieving power. In the case of the SAP, it formed an alliance with a conservative farmers’ party called the Agrarian Union, quickly disavowed its former Marxist and revolutionary and anti-monarchist rhetoric and even entered into an informal agreement with the Lutheran state church. At the same time Fianna Fáil watered down its more radical republican ideology, put plans for reunification on hold and repaired its relations with the Catholic Church. Both parties also developed remarkably effective grass roots organisations, and both made a major effort to move into areas where they were weaker.
Just like Fianna Fáil, the SAP was led by a series of charismatic leaders who dominated their generation and their popularity ensured a similar familiarity with regard to their names: the first prime minister of a majority SAP government, the avuncular Per Albin Hansson, was usually referred to as Per Albin, as if he were an old friend of the family. Despite his nickname, Éamon de Valera, was as far removed from an SAP leader as could be imagined, but his successor, Séan Lemass, showed a zeal for modernisation and social democratic managerialism comparable to that of his Swedish counterparts
While Ireland was a lot poorer than Sweden there was a longstanding political commitment to the development of a modern social welfare system. Even during the War of Independence the republican government began breaking the poor law basis of welfare provision. Changes towards earning-related benefits in Britain under the first Labour government in 1923-24 were more or less replicated in Ireland too. In the 1930s, under Fianna Fáil, the poor law basis of the system was finally abolished in favour of a general entitlement system, and was greatly expanded, along with public housing and health provisions. It was these developments which caused the urban working class to switch from Labour to Fianna Fáil in that decade. Planning in government for a postwar expansion of the welfare system was based largely on the Beveridge Report, which circulated widely among top civil servants and ministers in Dublin.
The view was that the Irish system should approximate as closely as possible to the type of system Beveridge proposed, with the parameters limited only by what could be afforded ‑ Ireland was a very poor state and a developing economy. These developments continued under Lemass, the first Cosgrave coalition and later Haughey (when he was variously minister of justice, health and welfare). The big change came in the 1990s. Social partnership was essentially an agreement to construct a comprehensive welfare state. What was new was that it would diverge from British welfarism and be reconstructed on a “social security” (earned benefits) system basis instead. This was the work of the unions and ‑ in Government ‑ especially Haughey and later Ahern. The outcome of that process is that Ireland’s welfare system today is now one of the most generous in Europe in actual benefit terms, second only to those in Scandinavia; it is a system more like those of other Northern European countries than the British system.
From the late 1990s Ireland created her own brand of a postmodern model economy, one that propelled her into the affluent stratosphere once occupied by Sweden. And just as in Sweden this period was ushered in under the auspices of the country’s largest party. The news that Ireland had overtaken Sweden in terms of per capita GNP in the early noughties was received first with disbelief and later with thinly disguised hostility by some Swedish journalists, who could simply not fathom how such a priest-ridden backwater could have superseded the much-trumpeted Swedish model.
But of course the Irish success did not last. And in both countries there was also a crushing sense of inevitability about how boom led to bust. In Sweden, despite frantic efforts to embrace change ‑ the handing over of the reins from Tage Erlander to the dynamic reformist Olof Palme in 1969 stands out in this respect ‑ the Social Democrats eventually ran out of options and could do nothing to stop the country plunging into a severe economic depression after a mismanaged banking crisis in the early 1990s. Since then the SAP has struggled to regain its former position and in the last election gained only 30.7 per cent of the vote, just marginally above its conservative adversary, the Moderate Party. As we all know, a similar cataclysmic crash struck Ireland at a later date and the consequences were even more severe for Fianna Fáil. In Sweden experts point to the lack of opposition, and more importantly the lack of alternatives to social democratic policies, during the party’s long period of domination, and this truism could certainly be applied to Ireland as well.
But perhaps there is a deeper reason for this sense of symmetry between both countries. While I was studying the emergence of the Social Democrats and how their policies gradually infiltrated every aspect of life in Sweden, from attitudes to the historical past to sexuality and housing, it struck me that this resembled twentieth century developments in Ireland too. Back in the 1930s, Sweden’s middle class was tiny but grew exponentially under the patriarchal social planning of the SAP, who constructed the world’s most comprehensive welfare state between the 1950s and 1980s. This new class and the generation that grew up under SAP rule must have come to regard the party’s ideals and aspirations as inseparable from their own Swedish identity. It’s perhaps to stretch a point to suggest that Fianna Fáil had quite the same influence on Irish identity, but since it also dominated the political system when the Irish middle class was emerging and acted as midwife to the country’s industrialisation during the 1960s it seems apposite to compare the two phenomena.
For most of the twentieth century these parties successfully nationalised their idiosyncratic views of modernity and opposition parties were unable to offer viable alternatives to these visions of the future. One could explain this in more concrete terms. Just as modern Ireland is dominated by Fianna Fáil’s vision of how modern families ought to live, the red-brick terraces and housing estates that characterise Irish towns and cities, so too is Sweden marked by the social planning schemes of the Social Democrats, with cityscapes consisting of long stretches of identical blocks of flats. Fianna Fáil spelled the demise of the thatched cottage in Ireland in much the same way as the Social Democrats sounded the death knell for the traditional Swedish red cottage. In the process both parties defined each country’s progress for decades to come.
Brendan Sweeney is a lecturer in Cross-cultural Communication at the Danish Institute for Studies Abroad and has worked and studied in Denmark for more than two decades. He is a graduate of the Rathmines School of Journalism and the University of Copenhagen. In 2005 he completed a PhD – funded by NUI, Galway – on Swedish national identity and social democracy. Brendan Sweeney’s historical novel Once in Another World which has 1930s Ireland as background was published by New Island in May 2013. He is currently finishing a new novel set in Copenhagen and Yemen.