We’ve been discovering lately a few of Sweden’s contradictions. On the one hand, we’ve seen the reportedly high levels of trust and community cohesion in towns where people leave items unattended or have low/no fences. On the other, we’ve experienced a little of the reported ‘coldness’ or reserved nature of Swedish people- trying to find directions into Karlstad and being ignored, and Natasha- the Bosnian immigrant- commenting about getting by in Stockholm as long as you ‘know the right people’.
We’ve seen how the state has a big part to play in people’s lives- perhaps the most notable (and surely controversial for British people) being restrictions on where you can buy alcohol- effectively restricting supply. And we’ve heard people using the language of mother when describing the state: “The system looks after you”. But at the same time we’ve met people very politically engaged, eager to talk about their country, and plenty of people have commented about how liberal and free a country Sweden is- despite also having a big state. Professor Lars Tragardh- interview coming soon- believes this to be the key difference about Sweden from other countries- its ability to merge a big state with free people. I think we’re afraid of the former and fiercely protective of the latter in the UK.
For me, the single biggest issue that has jumped out at me has been that of social trust. Equality of income, and an attachment to the idea of pursuing equality of opportunity for all, seems to work while people trust both each other, and the social institutions (hospitals, government etc) that give them the services they pay taxes for. Our host in Karlstad suggested that once that trust begins to break down, by either inequality going up or reports of bad hospital treatment or better schools in one place than another, then the stable social system begins to wobble a bit, and it becomes harder to maintain levels of equality, or popular support for them.
As Lars comments, if inequality can be reduced and trust built is really the ’64 million dollar question’. It’s one I want to try to attempt to answer if not on this trip, then when we’re back in the UK!
(Look out for Lars Tragardh’s interview and Kaj Torok’s (an expert in social trust) for some really interesting
perspectives on all of this).
Steve. 30th August. By the sea.