Sweden is viewed very favourably in Britain. It’s seen as tolerant, liberal and friendly country, committed to modernity yet proud of its traditions. Sweden seems to get the balance right between supporting free markets and free trade on the one hand, and having a compassionate approach to the poor and refugees on the other.
Yet for those following the Swedish election, due to take place on the 9 September, it is increasingly clear the Swedish utopia popular in the British imagination bears little resemblance to reality. Crime, particularly violent crime, has increased notably. The economy, while not stagnant, isn’t roaring ahead either. While the number of refugees and asylum seekers entering Sweden has fallen since the height of 2015, the effect of integrating more newcomers per capita than any other European nation remains an immense challenge. The unemployment and poverty rates amongst migrants are considerably higher than for native Swedes- the disparity between foreigners and the general population is far greater in Sweden than in the US or the UK. The impact of high migration has increased the prominence of the right-wing Sweden Democrats, although the most recent opinion polls suggest they won’t be as successful as it was once feared.
To make matters worse, the country is divided as to what the future of Sweden’s famously generous welfare state should be. The incumbent government, a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens, believes maintaining high welfare spending is the key to ensuring the working class receive a fair share of the benefits of globalisation. Without welfare, Sweden could experience the sort of populist uprisings that have affected more free-market countries like the UK, the US or even New Zealand. They argue a key cause of popular dissatisfaction is the increasing gap between rich and poor, and the continued prosperity of the finance sector, even when decisions made by reckless bankers caused the financial crisis.
I’m very sceptical of those arguments, which is why if I were Swedish, I would vote for the centre-right Moderate Party. Sweden is more economically equal than almost any other country on earth. It has a relatively small financial sector compared with EU competitors like the UK or Ireland. It also has one of the world’s most generous welfare states, including a vast array of universal benefits for families, students and pensioners. So insufficient state spending cannot explain the popularity of the Sweden Democrats, nor can it address issues like a lack of economic growth, dissatisfaction with migration, or Euroscepticism.
Sweden needs to ensure its existing public provisions, such as the police or the pension system, have the trust of the Swedish people, before embarking on any more expensive long-term commitments. The country must demonstrate an ability to enforce the law, and not shy away from convicting migrant criminals for fear of political correctness. While Sweden should be proud of a culture that treats refugees kindly, it cannot be the world’s safe haven. This means pushing for EU-wide policies to distribute refugees equitably, rather than allowing excessive migration into Sweden under the pretence of upholding liberalism. Equally, the Swedes’ willingness to pay high taxes must not be mistaken for enthusiasm for a redistributive EU; a Moderate-led government should stand against proposed increases to international wealth transfers.
None of this is to argue the past four years of Social Democratic rule have been a disaster. The Nordic combination of flexible labour markets with generous social insurance schemes was maintained to the country’s benefit. Taking in too many refugees may have been a mistake. But taking in too few, as Britain has done, shows a basic lack of humanity. Sweden’s environmental record is stellar, as is its progress on gender equality and gay rights. The country’s childcare policies, while expensive, are the envy of the world.
However, Sweden needs a change of course. The Social Democrats have been committed to liberal ideals, but have drifted too far into left-wing utopianism and wishful thinking. A Moderate-led government would maintain a belief in the essential principles of the Swedish welfare system, while reforming it and other public institutions to restore the public’s trust. It would work within the EU, but be more aggressive in advancing Sweden’s interests in the European sphere. And by joining NATO and increasing defence spending, it would show leadership on the world stage against an increasingly isolationist America which cannot be relied upon to defend Sweden, and an increasingly aggressive Russia. Sweden has been a beacon to the rest of the world in good governance and intelligent policymaking. With a new government, it can be so again.