torsdag 28 september 2006

After three weeks in Sweden

Whilst first impressions count, three weeks in a country gives you the chance to scratch below the surface. Paradise?

There is definitely more care for public spaces than in Britain, and this makes the whole experience of being in the country more pleasant. People generally seem more relaxed and better tempered and teenagers are, on the whole, better behaved, and more polite and considerate. There just doesn't seem to be the underlying mood of aggression that is so prevalent in Britain.

You see hardly any homeless people on the streets and sleeping in shop doorways. There is much less litter and vandalism. Public spaces are invariably designed and built to a high standard. It is easier to walk around towns because it is obviously accepted that people should be able to go easily and safely. In city centres, we find pedestrian crossings all in the right places, with good facilities such as controlled lights. In the countryside, we find well-placed but discreet footpath markings.

Alcohol-related problems appear to be on nowhere like the scale they are in the UK. The beer on sale in supermarkets has a low alcohol content - about 3%; anything stronger can only be bought from the state off-licence chain Systembolaget (which has been the subject of a corruption scandal). So the Swedes generally either go abroad to drink or buy their cheap booze in Denmark. The alcoholics tend to gather in small groups on park benches or hang around the Systembolaget shop. This presumbably would have the effect of making people reluctant to go and buy booze, as the styling of the shops is a bit off-putting - it would be a bit like being seen entering a VD clinic. The same benefits could probably be achieved through the tax system.

Is there a down-side to all this? Seventy years of socialism have both yielded benefits and taken their toll.

But the UK's troubles are coming. A lot of Swedes live in on the outskirts of towns and cities, in flats on bland estates with few facilities, apart, perhaps, from a reasonably good bus or tram service. These worked well as long as people acted with restraint and respect for public space - indeed, they were, mistakenly held up as in example and the idea imported into the UK, where attitudes and conduct are very different. But there are a lot of immigrants, some of whom are, as it is tactfully put, "not well integrated". The high divorce rate (50%), which is accepted as OK, has given rise to a generation of children who are not as well-disciplined as they would have been had they been brought up in settled families.

So graffitti and vandalism, whilst nothing like as bad as in Britain, is on the rise, as is drug-taking and the associated crime. Sweden is probably about twenty years behind the UK but unless things can be brought under control, they will inevitably go our way.

The economy is also shaky. Visitors will find the exchange rate very favourable, which is not a good sign. There is a serious poverty trap, which, together with high taxes on labour, has led to an unemployment rate estimated to be about 20%, even though official figures are lower.

The price of the liberal society is also being paid in another way. A low birthrate, combined with high taxes on labour, has led to a brain-drain and a demographic problem, with a pensions crisis and difficulties in providing care for the elderly. Just like Britain, then.

For decades, Sweden's experiment in social democracy, was held up as a model alternative to Marxism. Certainly it was a gentle affair and in mny ways has been hugely successful - it remains a good country and in many ways one of the best in Western Europe. Whether there is much that other countrys can learn is questionable, because the achievement is to a great extent due to the character of the people.

The task now is to avoid throwing away the baby with the bathwater. Whether the new government can achieve this remains to be seen.

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