A moral superpower shifts right

Published by The i paper (10th September, 2018)

A few years ago I spoke at a conference in Sweden, which took place in a rural venue at height of summer. Afterwards I sat chatting with other delegates over drinks beside a lake. The sun was shining, the water sparkling and the bar filled with shiny happy people living in one of the world’s happiest and most secure states. ‘This is the perfect society,’ I said. The Swedes all nodded agreement. But one Welsh woman, married to a local, disagreed. ‘It seems great on the surface,’ she said. ‘But there’s no room for dissent or individualism.’

Now we see the consequences. For this admired Nordic nation, once termed a ‘moral superpower’, is lurching right. As I write in Malmö, an electoral earthquake is erupting in a country renowned for sense, stability and social democracy. On Saturday I watched a man in a blue linen jacket, check shirt and chinos ranting at a rally, his speech spiked with bile against Muslims and migrants. Today Jimmie Åkesson and his Swedish Democrats (SD), a rebranded bunch of neo-Nazis, has triumphed.

For whatever the precise result, Åkesson has won. His party, with its white supremacist roots, was beyond the pale until recently. But after softening the rhetoric, purging the most overt racists and replacing the flaming torch logo with a cute flower, the SD has already shattered the consensus as other parties tighten immigration policies. Bear in mind this is a place where Social Democrats have come first in every election for a century. Now the extremes on both sides are strengthening. And the far-right could get its perfect result: poll success followed by refusal of other parties to join them in coalition and political chaos.

This is the latest disturbing explosion in the populist insurgency across Europe that has seen far-right groups win power from Austria to Italy. The new nationalists are marching forward with vigour while moderates shiver in these turbulent times. Yet we need to get beyond the toxic narrative pushed by the sales forces of hate and subtle fascists that this is simply a revolt against an invasion of foreigners, many with dangerous beliefs.

Certainly migration is a key concern in Sweden, as I heard repeatedly in the SD’s southern heartlands. The country has taken in more newcomers than any other per head on the continent since 2015. Yet this is also a nation with a strong economy that weathered the 2008 fiscal meltdown better than most and has among the lowest unemployment in Europe. Migrants have higher labour force participation rates than the continent’s average, play a key role in Stockholm’s start-up scene and are needed in an ageing society.

We are seeing again the impact of political failure by mainstream figures to uphold the values of liberal democracy and pursue smart policies. Yes, Swedish complacency led to failures of integration; one Muslim bus driver in a Malmö suburb told me he felt never fully accepted as a citizen despite arriving in the country aged three. But if Turkey can absorb three million refugees and impoverished Uganda take one and a half million, why did the arrival of just one million people from war-torn nations in 2015 come to be seen as such a catastrophe that it has contorted politics in a wealthy continent of 508 million?

The answer will keep historians busy. Europe’s leaders bickered for short-sighted domestic advantage. Nationalist leaders in Hungary and Poland were permitted to scupper European Union efforts to solve the crisis by scattering migrants around the continent. Britain drew up the drawbridge. And moderate politicians started to echo the far-right rather than fight and ostracise them; the Tories even sit in the same EU grouping as this Swedish party whose members used to dress in Nazi uniforms at meetings.

Political failures fuelled scapegoating of migrants, refugees and Muslims as voters tried to turn back clocks. That bus driver lived in an area pockmarked by violence from gangs fighting turf wars with a spate of shootings and bombings. Yet it was far from the no-go area claimed by the SD, better than parts of Britain and France. Experts insist there is no evidence overall crime rates are higher among migrants than other marginalised sections of society stuck in poorer parts of our cities, despite some evidence of a rise in sex assaults. Yet the SD got away with its narrative that crime can be blamed on newcomers.

Now moderate forces splinter and extremes grow stronger; even in rural Bavaria, there are signs of voters turning to Greens in dismay over traditional conservatives turning right. Just as Brexit was the inevitable legacy of constantly throwing red meat to insatiable Eurosceptics, so this surge in the Swedish far-right is partly a product of mainstream politicians shifting onto their terrain rather than discussing issues and confronting causes.

We need immigration and should protect refugees fleeing conflict. But the welfare state must adapt. Tax systems must change in response to globalisation, and skills strengthen. Inequality – rising faster in Sweden than any other industrialised nation – must be tackled. Health care and schools need constant improvement. Pensions need protection. Housing bubbles must be burst.

There are many more reasons for these seismic events in Sweden, from job insecurity to impact of technological change. Fear has been growing in a once-optimistic nation, fuelled by diffuse factors from concerns over Russian aggression through to Brexit, which means loss of a soulmate in Brussels. Even its prized global image has come under fire from the White House. But if people do not wake up when a significant slice of Sweden votes for a reinvented fascist party, then Western democracies are sleepwalking towards disaster.

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