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The future of the Swedish model

‘‘Filippa, where are you?” The question is asked every Thursday at public meetings in Tensta, a poor suburb north-west of central Stockholm. Filippa Reinfeldt of the Moderate Party is responsible for health care in Stockholm County Council, where the centre-right majority has introduced Health Choice Stockholm (Vårdval Stockholm). The new system makes it easier for private companies to compete with the public sector in primary health care.

According to the centre-right parties, Health Choice Stockholm empowers citizens by allowing them to choose their health-care provider. Critics, including the Swedish Medical Association, claim that the market-oriented approach puts poor people at a disadvantage because it does not pay enough attention to their additional health-care needs. In Tensta and many other suburbs, public health centres have been forced to reduce staff. However, Reinfeldt has yet to accept the invitation for a public debate with the Social Democrats in Tensta.

The principles behind Health Choice Stockholm will be mandatory for all Swedish counties. This is only one of the far-reaching changes decided since the four centre-right parties of the Alliance for Sweden came to power in 2006. More fundamental alterations to the Swedish model of high-quality social welfare will take place over the next few years, especially if Alliance for Sweden wins the next national election in September 2010.

After the electoral success of 2006, Reinfeldt’s husband, Fredrik, formed a four-party government, encompassing the Moderate Party, the Liberal People’s Party, the Christian Democrats and the Centre Party. Since they took office, taxes have been reduced substantially, financed to a large extent through reductions in social benefits.

The difference in living standards between people with a job and those without has increased. Now, in the wake of the global economic crisis, government ministers have acknowledged that changes to unemployment benefits might have been too drastic, leaving Sweden ill-equipped to face historically high unemployment. Fredrik Reinfeldt became prime minister by rebranding his party as a defender of ordinary workers. Yet his long-term agenda seems to involve a radical overhaul of the Swedish model – and this is where structural reforms such as Health Choice Stockholm fit in.

To begin with, citizens may appreciate being able to choose their primary health centre. However, since private health-care providers are free to establish themselves anywhere, in the process securing taxpayers’ money for treatments that might not be needed, ultimately cuts have to be made elsewhere in the public sector, especially when taxes are reduced.

A similar situation prevails in education. In 1992, a centre-right government allowed private entrepreneurs to establish new schools in areas where public money was short. Although Social Democratic governments of the past had provided extra money to support public schools in poor areas, this funding has been withdrawn. The result has been that parents who can navigate the system take their children out of state schools, leaving others behind.

The government is undermining public services in many other ways, slashing spending on affordable housing and privatising state-owned companies. When the quality of public services falls, so does the public’s willingness to pay high taxes, which has always been one of the foundations of the Swedish welfare model. In a speech at the London School of Economics last year, Fredrik Reinfeldt questioned whether there has ever been such a thing as the “Swedish model”. However, Tensta is giving Social Democrats some hope. In the European elections on 7 June, voter participation there increased substantially. One reason was surely the weekly protests against Health Choice Stockholm.

Mats Engström writes for the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State