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The death of a dream

Andrew Brown has won the Orwell Prize for Fishing in Utopia, a memoir of life in Sweden. Here he tal

Sweden has become globally symbolic of the welfare state: high taxes, social policies for equality, sexual education and liberation. Part of that symbolic status was a peculiar national and collective narcissism: one way or another, most Swedes, and not only intellectuals or cultural critics, were preoccupied with trying to understand the social-democratic model and culture in which we lived. And no wonder. What happened between 1932 and 1976, the 44 years of unbroken Social Democratic Party rule, was, in the end, so unusual, and so revolutionary.

Andrew Brown’s book Fishing in Utopia (Granta) has won the Orwell Prize for political writing this year. It is an autobiographical account of living in Sweden in the late 1970s. Andrew, the child of diplomats and the product of private schooling, was, he says, entirely convinced at the time that Sweden represented the inevitable future. Nevertheless, going to live in Social Democratic Sweden and getting a manual job in a small pallet-making factory in the provinces was not a common journey for men of his background. Think of Bruce Chatwin in Sudan, or Rory Stewart in Afghanistan: those are the natural, and healing, stamping grounds for British travel writers.

Andrew’s journey is all the more exotic precisely because it is so understated, and takes him to a destination that is wrenchingly dull and lonely: “square, with shops set into the shabby concrete round two sides. There was a Konsum, a shoe shop, a florist, and an employment exchange.” “Faced with all this sterile silence my hair grew ragged and my beard grew melancholy; when I walked to the shops, some of the children would call after me, ‘Jesus’.”

Fishing became Andrew’s salvation, a relief from the repressively respectable silence in the poor little settlement where he lived. “I had no idea,” he says, “as, I would say, most people living in Stockholm would have no idea, of what life in the provinces was actually like. Fantastic rigidity, deep, backbone respectability. That was an enormous shock to me.”

Fishing is described in his book as not only meditative, but also faintly mystical, as though all the spiritual urges in Sweden are really pagan, located in the rivers and forest lakes, the skies and the rocks. Andrew (genuinely) wanted to understand the fish (some of the best parts of the book really are about fishing), but he also wanted to understand the Swedes, and the Swedish project, Folkhemmet, the Social Democratic term for the nation as the “home of the people”.

The Social Democrats remained in power for 44 years, between 1932 and 1976. Their policies included high taxes, centralised wage agreements, union power (linked to the party), employment security, safety in the workplace, support for women, environmental protection and third-way neutrality. They built a million new flats, to defeat, once and for all, rural poverty. The cottages of the rural poor were abandoned or became the second homes of the comfortably off, and general affluence and equality succeeded poverty and hierarchy.

They were genuinely interested in creating a fairer society, and, in many ways, did so, but they also created a society of conformity and concrete, state surveillance (the clandestine monitoring of communists was to become a national scandal) and joyless, mediocre schools. Maj Sjövall and Per Wahlöö wrote bleak and dystopian bestselling thrillers, the murderers always capitalists, distanced from ordinary people and ordinary decency. People shuffled forward in endless queues at Systembolaget, the state-monopoly alcohol outlet. The blacklisted alcoholics sat outside, soliciting people to buy them vodka. Rock bands sang about materialism and alienation, prostitution and addiction.

One of the pivots of the liberal critique of Social Democratic Sweden was the idea that the state took excessive numbers of children into care, and that at least a part of the state constituted, in effect, a repressive machinery where individual rights were potentially sacrificed to powerful social norms. The story of children taken into care was internationalised, unwittingly, by Andrew, who was by then working as a journalist: his story about one particular case bounced from a piece in the Daily Mail (mothers weeping, soulless bureaucrats), to Private Eye (jokes about Sweden), to Der Spiegel (“Swedish children’s Gulag”, an investigation based on six cases). Later, Andrew returned to the original case and concluded that the state had been right to take this particular boy, “Child A”, into care, and that the mother was in fact a psychopathic fantasist who posed a real danger to the child.

But consider this: Sweden in the 1980s seriously considered forcible quarantine for HIV-positive people. Between 1935 and 1976 about 60,000 Swedes – all poor – were victims of coerced sterilisation: travellers, the mentally subnormal, girls considered promiscuous, petty thieves and vagrants. That, too, was ultimately part of the Folkhemmet project.

In the mid-1980s the banking sector was extensively deregulated in Sweden, which led to a period of rapid credit expansion, followed by a spectacular bust in 1990. After that, everything changed. Crime statistics, particularly rape, have gone up, and immigrant alienation is palpable in some areas. “The very strong sense I was getting in Gothenburg recently,” Andrew says, “was that the central government is forcing policies on the regions that they don’t want, in particular polices about asylum-seekers, and that the nationalists will get seats in the next election, which is very frightening. The thing that really frightens me is that it would lead to a more violent politics – street battles between immigrant youths, anti-fascist action and pro-nationalists. Once politics gets turned into an affair for teenage gangs it’s hard to drag it back from that.”

It is not impossible. While Sweden generally is thought of as a peaceful society, there have been episodes of violence. In February 1986, Olof Palme, the prime minister, was shot dead on the street as he was walking home from the cinema with his wife. In 2003, Anna Lindh, the minister for foreign affairs, was stabbed to death at NK, Sweden’s equivalent of Harrods. Like Olof Palme, she was not protected by bodyguards at the time of her attack.

In 1989, neo-Nazis murdered a trade union activist and two policemen, in separate incidents. The same year, neo-Nazi car bombs blinded a policeman and almost killed a journalist. The three founders of the far-right organisation NRA committed an armed bank robbery in 1999. They wounded two policemen and then shot them dead at close range, in what became known as the “Malexander murders”. And these were no innocents: one of them had already been indicted for war crimes in Bosnia, one of the many amateur mercenaries drawn to those killing fields.

In a bizarre twist, it turned out that one of the others, Tony Olsson, had been given permission from prison to take part in a rehearsal for a play, entitled 7:3, by one of Sweden’s most famous playwrights, Lars Norén, about the neo-Nazi movement. The name derives from a paragraph in the prison code about prisoners likely to attempt escape; Olsson duly did escape from the theatre, and went on to commit robbery and murder. The “actors” in the play were actual neo-Nazis, given neo-Nazi lines. It was put on at the National Theatre.

It is hard to imagine a similar scenario in Britain. Nor would one expect neo-Nazis to complain on national TV about the lack of rehabilitation facilities for Nazis. Only in Sweden is the political belief system so normative that people on the extreme right themselves believe that they are acting out individual pathologies.

The northern European path of peace, openness and minimal security led, ultimately, to the death of one prime minister, one foreign minister and two policemen, with many others wounded. Unlike in Germany, Denmark and Italy, the terrorists of Sweden were from the right, not the left. That meant that they had no real connections with groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the IRA, or with Palestinian groups. They were linked only to other neo-Nazis, crazy white-power zealots from Germany, Russia and the Anglo-Saxon world.

I talk to Andrew about the shock of the Palme murder. “In a way,” he says, “I was more shocked by the quite stupefying incompetence of the police afterwards.” The police investigation initially focused almost exclusively on the Kurds, and included the illegal surveillance of Kurdish immigrants. It is almost certain that the PKK had nothing to do with it, and that the real culprit was Christer Pettersson, a drug addict with a history of violence who was convicted of the murder, though later released on a technicality.

Many eminent people in Sweden, however, believe that the murder was planned by apartheid South Africa. Eugene de Kock, the policeman in charge of the infamous Vlakplaas, where dozens of anti-apartheid activists were tortured and killed, has publicly stated that Craig Williamson, a South African spy who had special links to Sweden, did it. And it may well be so. The struggle against apartheid was one of Palme’s causes, and Sweden donated millions of dollars to the ANC via the International University Exchange Fund (infiltrated by Williamson) and other channels. Though we may never know for sure.

“The Social Democrats now,” Andrew says, “have a reputation as extremely boring technocrats, but they did understand politics as theatre. It was perhaps when the theatre went out of it that it went wrong.” Or perhaps it went wrong – or right – when the opposition finally got its act together and formed a viable coalition. When you look back at Swedish elections since 1932, it is striking how even the results are. The Social Democrats won every election from 1932 to 1976, comfortably fluctuating between 40 and 54 per cent of the votes. In 1976, their share of the vote decreased by less than 1 per cent, but the new liberal-conservative coalition broke the hegemony.

I recently found stuffed in my bookcase an old edition of Palme’s speeches and articles from 1968 to 1974. They are not, on the whole, a pleasure to read. His speech to the party congress in 1969, for example, is 20 pages long, stilted and intense. His address to the Social Democratic Youth Organisation in 1972 is 15 pages long. He must have bored the party into submission. And yet his speeches about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, or the American bombing of Hanoi, are genuinely moving.

The cultural history of Sweden is always written with reference to Folkhemmet, and popular notions of Sweden are permanently steeped in ideas of sexual liberation, equality and affluence, with a dash of dystopian gloom added by crime writers such as Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell. Perhaps now the time has come to write something based on other terms of reference, though what that would be, I have no idea. Fishing might be a good place to start.

Sigrid Rausing is the publisher of Granta

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

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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