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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

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror