Tara Albert Square! Hallå Gamla Stan!
In July 2020, I packed up my flat in Manchester and moved to Stockholm. My job has led me to live abroad a lot over the years, but I’d assumed I was finally settled in the UK. The job and the allure of Stockholm were the pull; the ongoing Tory assault on civil society in the UK was more than a little push.
Like many in the UK, I’d been trying to make my small voice heard. I had marched on anti-Brexit demonstrations, and later, I had joined a small group meeting regularly in Albert Square to register a quiet protest against the outrageous attack on democracy that was the proroguing of parliament.
We swapped stories in a make-shift confessional circle one evening, giving an idea of why we were there. One woman told us about her experience in the Estonian Singing Revolution. A man explained that he had a similar educational background to Johnson and his ilk. He stressed how truly damaged these people are, not to garner sympathy for them, but to bring home just how psychologically unrestrained their capacity for cruelty and destruction actually is.
I talked about my grandparents, working class people who had struggled through two world wars and more. They had conveyed to me their pride in the healthcare and pension rights they had earned, rights resented ever since by the Rees-Moggs of this world, rights which Brexit would, crucially, make easier to trash.
It was tough to leave people in the UK, and grasping a new language and culture in your 50s turns out to be something of a challenge. But I am glad I came. The Swedish Model has many positives. Stockholm is beautiful and, in my experience, welcoming. The seasons are dramatically defined. You can pop on a boat as easily as a bus. You can, I kid you not, contact an actual person in the tax office!
I am, of course, still learning about the way things work here, about the famous Swedish Model, both the ideal and the reality, and about the machinations of the PR system here. However, a couple of recent events revealed a lot.
Sweden’s first woman Prime Minister! Oh wait …
A famous review of Samuel Beckett’s wondrous Waiting for Godot called it ‘a play where nothing happens, twice’ (but where the audience is nevertheless transfixed). In November 2021, Magdalena Andersson (‘rs’ pronounced ‘sh’ in Swedish) became Sweden’s first woman PM, twice. And plenty happened…
Andersson was bounced back and forth by a flurry of reactive activity among members of her governing coalition. This involved concessions on pensions to the Left Party (a new David, fresh from successfully flexing its muscles against the previous government) in return for their support, meaning Andersson was able to become PM.
But the Centre Party took umbrage at the concessions given to the left, and withdrew their support for the government, meaning the opposition’s budget was voted in. At this, the Greens promptly left the government. And so Sweden’s first woman PM was forced to resign after a mere seven hours in the job.
Those who oppose PR will hold this up as an example of why it doesn’t work. But actually, to me, it just about seemed to be a system going through its (admittedly somewhat tortuous) paces. There was a feeling that there was a process which would probably work itself out in the end. Andersson finally did become PM.
The politician, the cleaner and the cup of coffee
At about the same time as the words ‘Boris Johnson … skandal … Prince Andrew … skandal’ were wafting across the airwaves, Sweden had its own scandal, serious in itself, but not on the same level as the shameful stuff emanating from the UK. It did, however, throw an interesting light on Sweden.
A cleaner at the PM’s private villa (general word for a detached house here) was found to be living illegally in Sweden. The government response was a masterclass in poor communication, with obfuscation and evasion only serving to make a bad situation worse.
Yet the incident also offered an insight into the employment divide in Sweden. The dubious practices of the cleaning company were reported, but there seemed to be relatively little room for discussion of the wider issues involved, i.e. the Swedish ‘skuggekonomi’ (shadow economy), where workers without residency status work for low wages in poor conditions, and where companies construct elaborate schemes to keep it all hidden.
This situation contrasts starkly with the situation for people like me, protected by strict laws on collective bargaining between unions and employers. It is notable that the unions here back the Swedish government in their cautious approach to The EU’s Minimum Wage Directive, so confident are they in the strength of collective bargaining in the country.
When the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported on the villa incident, they noted that another minister once hadn’t even dared accept a take-away coffee for fear the company providing it might not have a ‘kollektivavtal’ (collective agreement). The minister’s reaction was meant to highlight the importance of the Swedish Model and nervousness over how ministers are perceived.
For me, it speaks of the integrated role unions play here in contrast with their weakened UK counterparts, while also throwing two sides of Sweden into uncomfortable juxtaposition.
There’s always fika…
2022 will be a good opportunity to see a PR election up close. Whatever happens, I somehow doubt suitcases of wine will play a role. For one thing, they’d have to join the Friday queue at Systembolaget, the sole, government-run, alcohol shop. For another, the Swedish tradition of fika is much more likely to feature. TV coverage of Stefan Löfven, the previous PM, resigning in November showed him smiling and shaking hands over coffee and a plate of biscuits.
I can’t quite imagine Johnson exiting in such a seemly fashion.