Swedish riots: if instability can happen here, what might unfold elsewhere

Stockholm - SwedenMore than 20 cars torched in only one night. School classrooms gutted by fire. Fifty far-right extremists chasing immigrants around a suburb. You probably haven’t seen much about it in the papers, but for the past week Sweden has been racked by rioting. Violence began in a suburb of Stockholm, Husby, and spread around the capital’s edge before other cities went up in flames. The Police have been pelted with stones; neighbourhoods have turned into no-go areas, even for ambulances. Such prolonged unrest is truly remarkable for Stockholm, as those few reporters sent to cover it have observed. Naturally enough, each article has wound up asking: why here ??; It’s a good question. Don’t surveys repeatedly show Sweden as one of the happiest countries (a damn sight cheerier than Britain)? Isn’t it quite famous for its equality, its warm welcome to the immigrants? Whatever happened to Stockholm, capital of progressivism, the Mecca towards which Guardianistas face for their daily five minutes of mindfulness? (source: Aditya Chakrabortty – The Guardian, UK – 28/05/2013)

We all know the cliches, but the reality is they no longer fit the country so well. Whether it’s on the wealth gap, or welfare, public services, Sweden is less “Swedish” than it has ever been. As in other continental capitals, the Stockholm version of “European social model” is an increasingly tattered thing, albeit still appealed to by the political elites and still resonant in popular culture. But the country seized by turbulence last week is becoming polarised, and is surrendering more of its public services over to private businesses (sometimes with disastrous effects). Those riot-scene correspondents ought not to be asking: why here? A better question, surely, is: if such instability can happen here, what might unfold elsewhere, including Britain? The First thing to observe about Sweden is how rapidly a gulf is opening up between rich and poor. Between 1985 and the late 2000s, according to the OECD thinktank, Sweden saw the biggest growth in inequality of all the 31 most industrialised countries. It’s important not to overstate this: the country remains one of the most egalitarian in the world, but it is taking big steps in wrong direction. Swedes used to pride themselves on their sense of moderation, what they referred to as lagom. Prime ministers were supposed to live as modestly as school teachers. Compare that with the recent craze in for vaskning. It means sinking, and refers to a practice adopted by young, gilded Swedes of buying two bottles of champagne and then ordering the barman to pour one down the plughole. When Mrs. Matilda von Sydow described it to me, I thought it was some urban legend, but no: she has seen it happen in Stockholm’s swanky Stureplan. As she says: “Imagine being an unemployed teenager in Husby and hearing about such practices.” And that’s other thing: while much of initial rise in inequality was about rich Swedes getting richer, increasingly poor Swedes are getting pushed backwards, either by unemployment and incapacity benefits getting relatively meaner, or by the rise in joblessness. On some measures, one in four young Swedes are out of work. In some towns, they are handed money to emigrate to “richer” Norway. Von Sydow lives in Oslo and observes: “In any local cafe, the barista will be a Swede.”

The second observation to make about Sweden is that parties of all persuasions have drifted rightwards over the past few years. It was the left that, in 2005, abolished inheritance tax, so that a Swede will now pay no duty on being left a million kronor, but will face a tax of 67% for starting their own business. And when it comes to privatising public services, Stockholm is way out in front of Westminster. Which is why Michael Gove adores their free school and voucher system; and why George Osborne enjoys being photographed alongside his Swedish counterpart Anders Borg. The Economist, that inflight magazine for the autodidactic plutocrat, recently wrote: “The streets of Stockholm are awash with blood of sacred cows”. It then went on to praise its school system as in image of Milton Friedman. Except that as social-policy academic Joakim Palme observes, the school system has got worse on Pisa international rankings. Palme thinks there is now 10% of Swedish population who are now unable to get a job and on comparatively mean benefits. They are more likely to be immigrants or their children, to be living in suburbs such as Husby, where the local services such as banks and post offices and youth clubs are also disappearing. Could they be what British politicians like to call an underclass? If Swedish government doesn’t spend more on schools and on benefits, Palme thinks they will be. Now, think about Britain: vastly more unequal, getting worse in the slump. To cap it off, Sweden’s economy is still growing, while ours is going nowhere. The inferences we might draw for what could unfold here over the next few years are worrying.

Acerca de ignaciocovelo
Consultor Internacional

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