Why Cameron is inviting a Viking invasion

Published in The Times (January 19th, 2011)

For decades the British Left was held captive by Stockholm syndrome. It looked at Sweden and saw paradise on Earth — a land filled with happy, shiny people who loved to pay high taxes in return for all-embracing public services. It was the finest society in the world, the Left declared, and Britain would be a better place if only we were more like them.

The Swedes offered tangible proof that something close to socialism worked, with the State taking a big slice of income in return for a civilised society that cared for its citizens from cradle to grave and protected them from harm. They showed that social justice and prosperity could go together. Stockholm might be a maritime port but to the Left it was the shining city on a hill.

Now something strange has happened. The Nordic nations still seem filled with beautiful people living enviable lives. But their governments, worried by those hefty tax rates and a crumbling sense of community, have unleashed a series of pioneering reforms designed to reinvigorate state services, increase equality and promote wellbeing. And suddenly it is the Right that is looking across the North Sea for inspiration.

It is not just the free schools and foundation hospitals of Sweden that have so captivated the coalition. It is Denmark’s environmental policies, Finland’s criminal justice system and Norway’s aggressive promotion of women in the boardroom. And above all, it is the high quality of life, low poverty rates and sense of social harmony that make these countries consistently top lists of the best places in the world to live.

So where once it was Tony Blair who saw the Scandinavians as role models for new Labour and Gordon Brown who loved their high tax rates, now it is David Cameron who admires their public services, their informality and their sense of contentment. “He always jokes that he wishes Britain could be a Nordic country,” said one aide.

Today he is attempting to make his wish come true. The eight leaders of the Nordic and Baltic nations have been invited for a “free-thinking exchange of ideas” with ministers, entrepreneurs, policy wonks and social innovators. In place of the usual diplomatic formalities there will be more than 50 rapid-fire sessions on sustainable growth, innovation, equality and wellbeing.

This Viking invasion was described by one Downing Street figure as “a sort of anti-Bilderberg”. Rather than formal talks behind closed doors, there will be short presentations, modelled on the TED video talks that have been such a hit on the internet. So the Norwegian Equality Minister will explain how to get more women into the workplace, the founder of Spotify will discuss the music industry and a Latvian conservationist will talk about the preservation of Riga’s historic wooden quarter.

This new-style summit is unlikely to catch on with the G8 and will concern those on the Right who dislike Mr Cameron’s interest in promoting the idea of wellbeing. But the Scandinavian influence is being felt already.

Last week ministers unveiled a plan to cut divorce rates in Britain based on a Norwegian scheme in which couples threatening to split are encouraged to ponder the implications. This week, Nick Clegg revealed plans for paternity leave that are heavily influenced by the Swedish approach to parenting and childcare.

Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, has pointed to Finland to justify jail closures, saying that it has proved that high imprisonment rates do not cut crime. The country switched from one of the highest levels of incarceration in Europe to one of the lowest with no discernible difference in crime rates. Sadly, not all in his party have accepted this lesson, although there is interest in Finnish efforts to champion entrepreneurship and encourage graduates to start businesses.

Curiously, however, Sweden is the shining lodestar for the modern Right, just as it was with the old Left. Its expensive brand of social democracy was forced to confront reality after the bursting of a property bubble in the early 1990s. Alongside big spending cuts, the country decentralised public services and introduced successful market-led reforms of education, health, welfare and social services. In came free schools, education vouchers, foundation hospitals and tough welfare reforms to get people back into work.

Such ideas inspired some of Mr Blair’s tentative steps towards reform just as they now inspire Mr Cameron’s more vigorous attempts to shake up public services. And who could attack his reforms as free-market extremism when they come from Sweden?

No doubt Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Prime Minister, will be the focus of much attention at the summit. But Sweden has gone far farther than the coalition has dared in unleashing market forces in public services, with companies running schools permitted to make profits and patients free to use any doctor, public or private, at state expense.

There used to be an unwritten law in the Labour Party that if a policy came from Sweden, it had to be good. Today, in a weird reversal, a similar belief is spreading across the coalition. The country has been called a capitalist welfare state, and it is like a pick-and-mix for policy wonks, whatever their political hue. After all, as both parties know, if a policy is marked Made in Sweden it is much easier to sell, since everyone is a little bit dazzled by the Nordic Nirvana.

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