Fishing in Utopia

Image: Wikipedia

Last week I wrote a piece about the financial uncertainties of self-employed life, uncertainties that dissuade many from giving up the perceived - and often still real - securities of a 'proper' salaried job.

Insecurity and risk are not just issues for freelancers, of course, but for start-ups too, and indeed the increasing number of employees with shaky, short-term contracts.

The coalition government's ongoing dismantling of what remains of our welfare system means that things are not going to get better any time soon. The theory is that economic insecurity is good for the encouragement of enterprise: innovate or starve.

That seems somewhat counterintuitive to me. In times of economic insecurity people are as likely to be risk-averse as they are to taking their chances in a turbulent marketplace. If no support is available for budding entrepreneurs who try and fail, does it not make more sense to seek refuge in a large organisation offering a steady wage than it does to risk an uncertain entrepreneurial venture?

There's evidence that countries with robust welfare systems tend to have more stable and sustainable entrepreneurial cultures than those that don't. I refer in particular to an interesting study published in The Economist earlier this year looking at a set of countries that have weathered our recent economic storms rather well: Norway, Denmark and Sweden. The so-called 'Nordic Model' is characterised by a comprehensive welfare state financed through high taxation. As even the neoliberal Economist acknowledges, the effect is to encourage rather than discourage enterprise. Quite simply, more people are willing to take a risk if there's decent support available to tide them over should they fail.

I've long admired the Scandinavian economic and political model, and, as I've blogged once or twice before, wondered whether something like it could be implemented here.

I'm encouraged by Ed Miliband's interest in seeking to develop a 'responsible capitalism' should Labour win the next election. But the development of that kind of system here would require more than a shift of government policy. It would need a change in our culture: a move from atomic individualism and despair about the ability of the state to effect meaningful change to a shared sense of purpose and belief in the possibilities of good government.

The extent of the change that would be required was impressed upon me by Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared by the English journalist Andrew Brown. It's a book of many layers. On the surface it's an affectionate but clear-eyed memoir of the years the author spent in Sweden as a young man during the late 1970s. On another level it's a whistle-stop introduction to fly-fishing, wonderfully evoking the lakes set deep in the Swedish forests where Brown learned to fish. But the book's deepest current is a well observed study of the Swedish character, and in particular the fierce spirit of egalitarianism that made Sweden's highly developed social democracy possible.

The Swedish system was constructed in the decades following the Second World War under the leadership of the Social Democratic Party, which held power almost continuously for more than 40 years up to the 1990s. Strong economic growth through the decades that followed the war made possible the development of a comprehensive social democratic political settlement, including well funded health and education systems, famously generous childcare provision, a complex network of vocational training schemes, decent pensions and other welfare support, and a commitment to full employment.

There was a cost: high taxation. But, as Brown observes, such was the commitment to equality it was price that nearly all Swedes he encountered were willing to pay:

The strangest thing about Sweden, to an English eye, was always its tremendous conformity. It did not matter what the orthodoxy might be: the point is that everyone knew what was acceptable and proper to believe.

During their hegemony the Social Democrats were able to channel this sense of common purpose to the construction of a modern, egalitarian state:

The Social Democrats had set out to remake Swedish society almost completely. They had inherited a poor, patriarchal, and formal society, and turned it into a rich, feminist, and fiercely egalitarian one. They seemed to have abolished poverty and war; they had certainly abolished selective schooling and even selective pronouns: when they first took office, Swedish, like French and German, had formal and informal words for 'you', which expressed social position as well as degrees of intimacy; in fact it was extraordinarily rich in hierarchical and impersonal constructions for addressing social superiors. By the time they left, everyone was quite simply 'you'.

Brown writes:

In the Social Democratic years, class became taboo. We might not all be equal in our pursuit of equality, but this was the only difference that could be publicly admitted. Failure to want equality was a handicap to be pitied; it demanded special treatment of some kind; but it was no longer a choice that anyone could make.

Brown records some faintly ridiculous stories about the lengths to which senior politicians were prepared to go to exhibit solidarity with ordinary people. They lived in nondescript suburban homes, enjoyed pretty much the same income and standard of living as a skilled welder, and took great care to be seen to shopping in the local Konsom, the Swedish co-op:

In the late 1940s, the prime minister would work late in his office then catch a train home. Sometimes the lack of distinction was deliberately theatrical. In the Fifties, when drink was still rationed, customers at the state off-licences, shuffling forwards like customers in a brothel where attendance was compulsory, were liable to random ID challenges when they reached the head of the queue. Normally one could expect to be checked once every couple of years. The prime minister, however, was always selected for a random check, just to show the other customers that it was truly random. Equality meant that everyone had to live up to the obligations of a citizen.

There was ambition and pride, but it was collective rather than individualist in nature:

There really was a sense of common purpose, and a belief that everyone might get richer co-operatively than they could by pure selfishness. I don't mean that people weren't greedy, or personally ambitious. Of course they were. But greed and ambition were mostly understood collectively.

Brown's observations made inspiring but somewhat disturbing reading for me for an old fashioned social democrat like me. I wish we could be more like Sweden. But it's not a system that can be implemented through a simple change of government. It must be rooted in the kind of culture Sweden has had for so many years, and, as the subtitle of Brown's book notes (the future that - has never quite - disappeared), has sometimes struggled to maintain.

Many of us wish for a more secure economic and social framework. But are we prepared to fund it through higher taxes? And are we as committed to equality and shared sacrifice as many of us claim to be? I hope against hope. But read Brown for a real sense of just what would be involved.