You want the Nordic model? Look ahead, not east
Naturally, a Nordic film crew pitching up became a regular topic of conversation in the interviews themselves, especially given the promises made by the Yes campaign regarding a ‘more Nordic’ Scotland. Every Scottish household will have received a newspaper from Yes Scotland, which alongside the opportunity to win a car and an i-pad also contained a feature on Norwegian childcare, among other nods east across the sea to a better world.
So it was that four days after the referendum I was sat on a slow train from Gothenburg to Stockholm, rolling through the small settlements of ‘middle Sweden’, or Mellansverige. These small factory towns were the heartland of Sweden’s industrial development through the 20th century, and by extension important anchors in the total domination of Swedish politics by the Social Democratic Workers party for most of the postwar period.
The Sweden of today is a very different place to the idyll commonly pushed across in rosy discussions of the Nordic model, which often take on the flavour of middle class catalogue shopping. If you pitch up in Scandinavia on a press junket then you will meet lots of similarly white, educated and wealthy people. The lifestyle articles regularly pumped out in the UK and US about Nordic food, cabin lifestyles and childcare are merely the tip of a complex socio-economic iceberg. The Nordic model has a deeper, and far more important component that most foreigners never see.
When celebrity economist Thomas Piketty wrote Capital in the 21st Century, he compared a number of developed Western countries, one of which was Sweden. There was partly a practical reason for this – Sweden has some of the best and most consistent labour market data of any country in the world. More importantly though, for a period in the 1980s Sweden also exhibited a level of inequality significantly lower than any other comparable developed country. How it came to be so is complex, but the simple answer is that it was able to combine large scale social spending with an impressive industrial machine that drove its welfare economy forward.
Interestingly, even under the conservative coalition governments that ruled Sweden from 2006 to 2014 public spending as a proportion of GDP was higher than at any time under the last Labour government.
These might sound like prosaic details, but this is perhaps the single biggest driver of the Nordic model. Infrastructure, from broadband to railway lines, does not come for free. Neither does childcare, nor free university education or aid spending.
These might sound like prosaic details, but this is perhaps the single biggest driver of the Nordic model. Infrastructure, from broadband to railway lines, does not come for free. Neither does childcare, nor free university education or aid spending. John Swinney would find very little common ground with his Nordic counterparts, apart from in Iceland perhaps where the economic orthodoxy is a little different despite the ‘pots and pans revolution’.
This is where the Holyrood 2016 SNP election pitch becomes so interesting. A reluctance to reform the local tax system, or even to increase the top rate of income tax, all but rules out any real commitment to Nordic public economics. Instead there is a Scottish Government commitment to a sustainable and equitable growth economy. It means running the show without having to make any serious changes, and letting growth fill in the gaps that tax otherwise might.
The common excuse given for such political relativism is globalisation, and the idea that political economics and business and economics are now tantamount to the same thing. As Thomas Piketty acknowledges, the world is indeed very different today compared to the Social Democratic golden age of the 1960s. With migrant crises, climate change, complex shifts in wealth and ‘the global race’. We are now living in what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has labelled ‘liquid modernity’, a time when capital is fluid, political movements transient and the global picture chaotic. This is somewhat similar from what the Channel 4 Economics editor Paul Mason has tried to put across in his popularization of post-capitalism as a concept – reading from the old rulebook will win you no progress.
Negotiating liquid modernity is a challenge for any government, but it seems doubtful that the Holyrood council tax freeze will be remembered as a turning point in the building of a new Scotland. Sweden likes to label itself ‘the most modern country in the world, and it has started to rethink how it fits into the global picture and what role it might play. Sweden’s grand narrative of modern progress is one everyone can sign up to. For the time being though SNP Scotland seems to have put its own future on hold indefinitely.
Dominic Hinde is an academic and foreign correspondent. His first book of reportage A Utopia Like Any Other: Inside the Swedish Model is available from Luath Press and can be pre-ordered from Word Power Books.