Magazine article Contemporary Review

Finland: The Best Country in the World?

Magazine article Contemporary Review

Finland: The Best Country in the World?

Article excerpt

'FINLAND Tops Global Prosperity Index'. That headline, in an influential British newspaper on 26 October 2009, would have had the Finnish political elite downing champagne by the magnum. Since the end of the Cold War and Finland's joining the EU, they have been steadily promoting a new Finnish 'brand': Finland may not be especially wealthy or overtly influential but it is stable, safe, modern, 'Western' ... a forested promised-land. Now it's official. London-based think-thank Legatum has revealed it to the world.

I've lived in Oulu in northern Finland since 2005 and find it, without qualification, a better place to live than England. Now that I have a baby daughter I cannot imagine moving back to the UK. In Oulu, population 120,000, I'd think nothing of leaving my backdoor unlocked, putting my daughter in her pram in the street to sleep or walking around late at night alone. Couples consigned to a council house in the UK could afford a generous detached cottage here. Though the situation is changing, there are few third-world immigrants and, so, few of the tensions this has led to in Britain. Finns remain relatively united. They all go to the cemetery on Halloween to place candles on family graves, they enjoy the forests in their 7-10 weeks paid holiday and 80 per cent are members of the Lutheran church. It's no wonder that British holiday-makers come for a winter break, meet Father Christmas and return brimming with praise. But the media coverage of the report has been so simplistic, and the report itself sufficiently limited in scope, that there is a danger of concluding that Finland is the romantic ideal of its nineteenth century epic Kalevala. Overall quality of life (Legatum's definition of 'prosperity') is high, but Finland is a complicated place.

Britain scores far worse than Finland in every sub-category of 'prosperity' bar one: 'Entrepreneurship'. Here, the UK is second in the world while Finland is only ninth. Finland is far less friendly to new enterprise. Though Finland's unemployment office gives the immigrant jobless 'start-up raha (money)' to set-up their kebab shops, owners I have interviewed see another side. 'There is a lot of bureaucracy and very high taxes', explained an Iranian restaurateur Bobby Dashti. 'That's the one thing I don't miss about Iran! In Iran, I could afford to employ more staff'! Trade Unions remain relatively powerful and, in 2007, a threatened mass-resignation by the nursing union forced the government to completely cave in over salaries. Unlike in Britain, if you earn just 2000 euros in a year it is still taxed as are savings, so there's less of an incentive to save. With a top tax rate of 50 per cent, the more you earn, the more the government takes off you. The Nokia chairman, Jorma Ollila earned 7 million euros in 2008 and he was Finland's top earner. That some celebrities were on 200,000 euros was actually considered newsworthy. Salary differences are not high, leading to less resentment and assisting social cohesion.

A Finnish friend summed it up well when he commented that Finland 'doesn't have an entrepreneurial spirit'. During the Cold War, Finland's policy--named 'Finlandization' by West German academics who feared their country would follow the same path--involved such subservience to their Communist neighbour that it was really only an independent democracy on paper. 'Especially in the 1960s, capitalism became a dirty word in Finland. Finnish society was very socialist and influenced by Moscow'. But, as it was never officially a Communist satellite, Finland avoided the post-1989 purges of other satellite states. Those who were embarrassingly close to the Soviet Union remain in power and socialism has been left with less of a stigma. 'So long an impoverished colony, Finland has always suffered from a kind of national low self-esteem ... a feeling that just surviving is enough'. Other Finns have commented to me that during that period it was best not to 'disagree' with how things were done 'and maybe this is still with us'. …

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