Board, Joseph B., Jr., Scandinavian Review
The author has been a frequent visitor to Sweden for several decades. Trained as a lawyer and political scientist, he holds doctorates in both fields. His best-known work for the general reader is The Government and Politics of Sweden (Houghton-Mifflin, 1970). His most recent contribution is the chapter on "Judicial Activism in Sweden," in Kenneth Holland's Judicial Activism in Comparative Perspective (St. Martin's Press, 1991). In his opinion/editorial pieces for Sydsvendka Dagbladet, a Malmo newspaper, Professor Board has shared his views on Swedish and American politics with Swedish readers. After spending several weeks in Stockholm this winter, he sent these observations on the changes he sees in Sweden today.
Americans are apt to think of Sweden as European. After all, it is located in Europe, has a parliamentary government, a constitutional monarchy, and plays soccer. Its citizens hold their knives and forks like Europeans. It may come as a surprise, then, that Swedes have never considered themselves to be typical Europeans, even when - as at present - they are deeply engaged in the integration of Europe.
There is a long tradition of "Exceptionalism" in Swedish national history. A lot like Americans, who regard their own civilization as exceptional, Swedes have thought of themselves as clearly different from Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, and all those other countries to the South.
A few years ago, this theme was examined by Per T Ohlsson, editorin-chief of Sydsvenska Dagbladet, a leading Malmo newspaper. He found this sense of a special Swedish character deeply rooted in Swedish history, constantly changing in its interaction with the adjoining world. Four centuries ago, it was identified with the Great Power status that Sweden then enjoyed. More recently, it was linked with the concept of "The Swedish Model." Although no longer a Great Power, Sweden could still claim to be exceptional as the social welfare success story of the century, a country that had abolished poverty and provided full employment combined with strong economic growth and a secure existence for all of its people. This theme of an extensive welfare state, combined with a free and expansive private sector, became the foundation for a new kind of "welfare patriotism," distinguished not by its military prowess or political power, but by its concern for human welfare.
Like all stereotypes the Swedish Model contained its measure of truths, half-truths and downright inaccuracies. Foreign observers, when they were observing Sweden at all, unfortunately often succumbed to the temptation either to beatify (Marquis Childs, Sweden: The Middle Way, 1936) or to demonize Sweden (Roland Huntford, The New Totalitarians, 1971), depending upon their own ideological inclinations. My own judgment, based on almost fifty years of Sweden-watching, is that the positive accomplishments clearly outweighed the defects of the Swedish Model. Very few countries have been able to turn a windfall to such good account as Sweden did during this period. That it had shortcomings, such as extremely high taxes and a very large public sector, started to become apparent in the 1970s, and by the 1980s the Model was coming unraveled. Add to this the great social changes that have occurred in Sweden during the past several decades, and the time is ripe for a fresh look at the country.
The Sweden of today is much more heterogeneous (several hundred thousand inhabitants of Moslem origin, for example), decentralized, multicultural (like all Western societies), contentious, cosmopolitan, media-dominated, market-oriented, and more interesting than the Sweden of the Swedish Model. The pace and extent of these social changes continues unabated.
Sweden is becoming more like other countries, losing some of the more prominent claims to exceptionalism. To paraphrase the immortal lines from the film Casablanca, Sweden is now like other countries, only more so. …