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How the “Swedish Social Democratic Model” disappeared from the discourse

Say, remember when we were all supposed to be more like Sweden?

No, I don’t mean during the pandemic, when the “we should be more like Sweden” line of thinking switched, suddenly, from being the staple of every Soc Dem and Labour Party media appearance, and became instead a far-right covid denier talking point. I mean before that.

Here, for example, is David Begg, the then general secretary of ICTU, writing in the Irish Times in 2007:

The Labour Party should offer the Irish electorate a new vision of society which is based on social democracy as adopted by Nordic states, Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary David Begg has said.

Such a paradigm would focus on the benefits of good public services for everyone, not just people on low incomes, and would challenge the current liberal Anglo-Saxon model, Mr Begg told the Tom Johnson Summer School, organised by Labour Youth in Galway at the weekend.

Or here, in the aftermath of the crash, is TASC, the left-leaning think tank, publishing a paper called “After the Celtic Tiger: A Nordic Vision for a New Ireland”.

There are literally hundreds of other examples from that period. It was the fad of its time. And then, in the last few years, the argument for copying Sweden suddenly dried up.

All of this is worth noting for two reasons: First, because in the aftermath of the great recession, Ireland basically did take the Nordic path. Higher taxes; more social spending; overt social liberalism; open borders and high immigration; a restorative (read: lax) attitude to crime; significant focus on middle class liberal grievances (for example, introducing gender quotas and teaching children about consent in schools); Climate Conscious; and more besides. We have become more Swedish than the Swedes were, politically.

Second, because in Sweden, that model is now basically being reversed. Consider this, from the new Swedish Government:

 Sweden’s new right-wing government has sparked an outcry after scrapping the Ministry of Environment in a move the opposition has branded “devastating”.

Previously, the ministry was a high-profile stand-alone department with a minister in the cabinet, but now it will operate as part of another ministry instead. 

The Government is scrapping renewable energy expansion plans, and going all-in on nuclear, instead. The new Government is also dramatically scaling back immigration laws, waging a “war on woke”, and putting renewed focus on crime. It is doing all of this after a majority of Swedes voted for it.

One would think that the Swedish decision to effectively reverse the Swedish model, as it used to be called, might compel countries that have copied that model to pause for thought. One would, of course, be wrong.

It is perfectly legitimate, though, to observe what happened in Sweden: High inward migration and a lax attitude to crime coincided with a dramatic rise in, well, crimes. Especially sex crimes. Relentless social liberalism coincided, over time, with a rise in social alienation and an increasing willingness to vote for parties willing to reverse it. Relentless environmentalism coincided, over time, with higher energy costs and a decision, in the end, to abolish the department of the environment and focus on lower costs and energy security instead.

In the end, then, a majority of Swedes appear to have concluded that their own social democratic model was not working for them. That’s a relatively important piece of information, that should probably inform those of us countries who have spent a decade trying to emulate it.

That is one of the problems with the chatterati in general: We’re not accountable, properly. People like me can write things with no consequences when we’re wrong. It’s one reason why this writer has a policy of listing all the things I got wrong at the end of every year. But in Ireland as a whole, we had years of people suggesting that Sweden was the country to emulate in terms of economy, society, law, the environment, and everything else.

Those people have gone very quiet now. And their influence in guiding the Irish public towards those policies, should those policies ever unravel here, will never be either admitted, or acknowledged. It’ll be on to the next thing, business as usual.

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