Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

British Observers of the Swedish Welfare State, 1932-1970

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

British Observers of the Swedish Welfare State, 1932-1970

Article excerpt

RELATIONS BETWEEN THE UNITED KINGDOM and Scandinavia have long been the subject of scholarly inquiry as historians, social scientists, and others have analyzed inter alia literary, commercial, intellectual, military, and religious ties between these two regions. Such works as Patrick Salmon's useful Scandinavia and the Great Powers 1890-1940, which focuses on commercial and diplomatic relations, have illuminated certain dimensions of the relationship. Yet much of the story of these links across the North Sea remains tenebrous, especially from the period after 1900.

For several decades bracketing the middle of the twentieth century, a time of intense global modernization that also witnessed economic upheavals in many countries and the bloodiest armed conflict in the history of the world, Sweden gained extensive international attention as both a society that had outstripped most other lands in coping with the vicissitudes of rapid social transition and avoided being ravaged by the dogs of war. This interest was unquestionably due in large measure to the social and economic transformation of the country after the Social Democratic victory in 1932. As Thomas Barman, the Norwegian-descended Scandinavian correspondent of The Times during that nascent stage of the welfare state, wrote in his memoirs, not long after Per Albin Hansson became prime minister that year Stockholm emerged as "an exciting and stimulating place to be" a city whose atmosphere was "sparkling with ideas." He recalled that "the debates in the Political Economy Club attracted capacity audiences" and that considerable numbers of visitors from overseas streamed to the Swedish capital to investigate how the government was solving the internationally vexing problem of unemployment. Subsequently, "they came to study the new trends in labour relations and the organization of the welfare state" (Diplomatic Correspondent 13-4). A cardinal purpose of their investigations, of course, was to determine which aspects of Swedish policy could be emulated in their own economically stagnant countries. Many of the British social and economic sleuths as well as other visitors recorded their observations in detail. During the 1930s and 1940s, their reports were generally enthusiastic and laudatory, especially those penned by Fabian Socialists and published in such sympathetic periodicals as The New Statesman and Nation, but also articles about Swedish society in more conservative periodicals like The Spectator evinced considerable respect for what Sweden under Social Democratic leadership was clearly accomplishing, not least in terms of nurturing a relatively high standard of living while preserving the essential core of the country's capitalist system.

By the 1950s, however, despite the sober and fairly extensive coverage which newspapers like The Times and The New York Times continued to give Sweden, such phenomena as alleged sexual promiscuousness, legalized abortion, permissiveness in publishing what in many societies was regarded as pornography, and rising rates of alcohol consumption, juvenile delinquency, suicide, and divorce also caught the attention of much of the world as wrinkles appeared in the fabric of what seemed to have been a carefully woven social tapestry. Agencies of the Swedish government as well as private interests, such as motion picture distributors, in effect contributed to this complicated and in some respects paradoxical image. Scholarly, popular, and governmental publications appeared in one country after another proclaiming the gospel of social planning but also warning of its pitfalls.

Accordingly, historians and other scholars have on occasion dissected aspects of how the internationally purveyed stereotype of modern Sweden originated and evolved. Much of the little analytical attention paid to this topic has been focused on North American perceptions, especially in terms of reactions to the creation of the welfare state and the alleged decline of standards of sexual morality. …

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