For Conservative success, look to Sweden
Given the similarity between Sweden and Britain, not least in certain economic issues, the coalition government should take comfort from a neighbour who has achieved what it has
There can be little doubt that Sweden is a country at ease with itself, proud of its reputation beyond its shores, and comfortable with its place in the world. For many years it was thought of as the ideal of socialism, but no longer. Many lessons can be taken from Sweden’s success in recent years, not least by our own Prime Minister, David Cameron.
In 2006, Sweden elected its first Conservative-led coalition government since 1994. Led by a young moderate named Frederik Reinfeldt, Sweden was to undertake reforms on a scale not witnessed for some time. Comparing Reinfeldt’s programme for Government with that of our own Coalition Government in Westminster is very interesting.
Before winning the general election in 2006, Frederik Reinfeldt had learnt lessons from the way the party was perceived at the previous election. The ‘Moderaterna’ party had been previously seen as a party of right-wingers intent on threatening public welfare – a model recognised globally for its generosity and success in the post war era. Bo Lundgren, the former Moderate leader had proposed radical tax cuts and lost to the Social Democrat, Göran Persson. The stigma attached to the Moderaterna brand was an issue that Reinfeldt knew he must address.
As with Labour in the UK in the 1990s, the moderates attached the prefix; ‘nya’ or ‘new’ to the party name, rebranding themselves as ‘Nya Moderaterna’. Even when Reinfeldt eventually won the 2006 election, the wording of his speech was almost identical to Tony Blair’s own words outside the Royal Festival Hall on the morning of May 2nd 1997. He remarked on Moderaterna’s success; “We campaigned as new moderates, we won as new moderates and together with our alliance partners, we shall rule Sweden as new moderates.” Blair textbook, page one it would seem.
However, unlike the empty mandate of New Labour in 1997, Reinfeldt had made very important changes behind the scenes. Every promise that the Social Democrats had made on social welfare spending, he promised to accept and improve. He switched focus on taxation from the rich to the low waged in an effort to stimulate economic growth. He attacked unemployment benefits with increased incentives on making work pay more. He even increased the retirement age to 67 (sound familiar?).
As a result of such measures, he received furious attacks from powerful Swedish trade unions in a way that would have damaged a weaker leader, and came out of the battle with credibility and strength going into the 2006 election.
What becomes even more remarkable about Reinfeldt’s success is that he managed it with the 2008-banking crisis. In the first quarter of 2011, Swedish grew at 6.4 percent. It has falling unemployment and a budget surplus, alongside a public debt heading southwards of 40 percent GDP. Put this together with the fact that Sweden is the second most competitively ranked country alongside Singapore, and you wouldn’t be far off thinking that Sweden might belong with the Tiger economies of South East Asia.
None of this success has happened by accident or overnight. Sweden for too long had a bloated public sector and welfare benefits, which stagnated ambition. But Sweden has reinforced its economy with a huge growth in recent years in the private sector and manufacturing. Sweden today is famous not just for ABBA and Ikea, but also for high quality design, defence, fashion, technology and a high skilled workforce.
It helps too that they remained outside the Euro and allowed their currency, the Krona, to devalue and become a competitive currency in harsh economic conditions. None of this would have happened though without a pro market government. Anders Borg, the pony tailed Finance Minister unashamedly says that “reinforcing the work ethic” has helped Sweden’s growth.
For our own moderate coalition in the UK, Sweden should be a tempting example of a country at ease with itself and able to make necessary changes. It helps too that Frederik Reinfeldt and David Cameron are good friends. The Swedish Ambassador once recounted a story about the Swedish Prime Minister waiting in a pub in Kensington with a pint of bitter whilst the Leader of the Opposition (David Cameron) ran late to cook supper for Reinfeldt! You don’t find foreign relations much warmer than that.
It is well known that the Swedish education system has been a key target for the British Government to follow and free schools are now open in England. However, the Swedish example should be looked at in more detail.
It is true that foreign models cannot be imported in every example, however, given the similarity of Sweden to Britain and the similarity of some of the economic issues, the coalition government should take comfort from a neighbour who has achieved what it has.
Follow Anthony Pickles on Twitter @AntPickles
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