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The Grim Truth Behind the 'Scandinavian Miracle'

Why does everybody think the Nordic region is a utopia?

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Effectively a one-party state – albeit supported by a couple of shadowy industrialist families – for much of the 20th century, "neutral" Sweden ( one of the world largest arms exporters) continues to thrive economically thanks to its distinctive brand of totalitarian modernism, which curbs freedoms, suppresses dissent in the name of consensus, and seems hell-bent on severing the bonds between wife and husband, children and parents, and elderly on their children. Think of it as the China of the north.

Youth unemployment is  higher than the UK's and higher than the EU average; integration is an ongoing challenge; and as with Norway and Denmark, the Swedish right is on the rise. A spokesman for the Sweden Democrats (currently at  an all-time high of close to 10% in the polls) insisted to me that immigrants were "more prone to violence". I pointed out that Sweden was one of the most bloodthirsty nations on earth for much of the last millennium. I was told we'd run out of time.

Ask the Finns and they will tell you that Swedish ultra-feminism has emasculated their men, but they will struggle to drown their sorrows. Their state-run alcohol monopoly stores, the dreaded Systembolaget, were described by Susan Sontag as "part funeral parlour, part back-room abortionist".

The myriad successes of the Nordic countries are no miracle, they were born of a combination of Lutheran modesty, peasant parsimony, geographical determinism and ruthless pragmatism ("The Russians are attacking? Join the Nazis! The Nazis are losing? Join the Allies!"). These societies function well for those who conform to the collective median, but they aren't much fun for tall poppies. Schools rein in higher achievers for the sake of the less gifted; "elite" is a dirty word; displays of success, ambition or wealth are frowned upon. If you can cope with this, and the cost, and the cold (both metaphorical and inter-personal), then by all means join me in my adopted hyggelige home. I've rustled up a sorrel salad and there's some expensive, weak beer in the fridge. Pull up an Egg. I hear Taggart's on again!

The Almost Nearly Perfect People – The Truth About the Nordic Miracle (Jonathan Cape), by Michael Booth, is published on 6 February. It will be BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week from 10 February.

• This article was amended on 29 January 2014. The claim that Denmark is the EU's largest oil exporter was based on out-of-date information and has been removed. A minor linguistic error has also been corrected.

 
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