Flats in the Hovsjoe district in south-western Soedertaelje, where many Syrian refugees in Sweden live. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
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I’ve changed my mind about the Swedes. They took in 40,000 Syrian refugees last year: Britain took 24

One thing the Swedes definitely do better than we do, and where we ought really to look a bit sheepish, is in the welcome they give to immigrants.

Everyone keeps asking me what I think about Craig Raine’s poem about a young Gatwick border controller’s embonpoint. I reply that if “She is maybe 22,/like a snake in the zoo” is not poetry, I don’t know what is, and then leave the country until it all blows over.

When I get to Gothenburg something seems different. I notice there are a lot more cool vintage American cars on the road than I recall from previous visits. Have I landed in Cuba by mistake? I also start noticing – it’s hard not to, really – groups of young girls wearing very short, floaty white dresses and, honest to God, little yachting caps. They conform far more closely to the Scandinavian template of womanhood than the Latin, so no, I’m probably not in Cuba.

I wonder what Craig Raine would make of them. “They are maybe 16,/like girls in a . . .” But no, I’ve no idea how to finish that line, which is why Raine is a published poet of international reputation and I am not. Anyway, many of these girls are hanging out of the vintage cars and screaming with wild abandon, behaviour guaranteed to lift all but the heaviest hearts and of which I thoroughly approve.

It turns out these young ladies are celebrating the end of their A-levels, or the Swedish equivalent thereof. Also, it is Sweden’s national day the next day, so the whole country apparently has gone a little crazy and decided to let its hair down. I mention this later to an English friend who used to work there.

“It really got on my tits,” he says. “What I wish they’d do is spread it out a bit more, instead of going mental for a week and then reverting to type for the rest of the year.” (“Type” here means “extraordinarily reserved, to the point where they make the English look like Italians, and they’re more likely to levitate than invite you back to theirs for a few after the bars shut”.)

One thing the Swedes definitely do better than we do, and where we ought really to look a bit sheepish, is in the welcome they give to immigrants. Doubtless there are plenty of occasions of xenophobic thuggery but the official line is humanitarian, which isn’t exactly how you’d describe that of, say, the Labour Party – from which, had I been a member, I’d have resigned instantly when I saw its “Controls on immigration” mug. (And a fat lot of good that did, eh?) Anyway, to offer one example: the Swedes took in about 40,000 Syrians alone last year, and to date about three-quarters have become Swedish citizens (many cases pending). Britain, on the other hand, could find room by last June for only 24 of those displaced. In case you think that’s a misprint, I’ll put it another way: that’s enough Syrians to organise a football tournament between them of two teams, with one substitute each.

H—, whom I am visiting, and who has been working on a rather big music project involving refugees, takes me to an asylum-seekers’ residence, a repurposed youth hostel about five miles from the city centre, whose British equivalent would almost certainly have bars on the window and be surrounded by razor wire. And in a room containing, by a strange coincidence, roughly 24 of them, we are treated like royalty, as they give us chocolate cake and sing Kurdish love songs to the accompaniment of the oud, or Arabian lute. We invite a couple of them she’s become friends with back for dinner and get a lot more oud action, although by about midnight, when there’s still light in the sky, H— begins to worry about the neighbours. (But if there’s been a complaint from them since then, she has yet to hear it.) Our guests also insist on bringing food because they don’t wish to impose on us, but I buy the wine, which, as it turns out, is not a negligible expense, because these Syrians can certainly knock it back; but when you consider the journey they’ve had to undertake to get from their ravaged homeland to Sweden, you can appreciate that they feel they’ve earned the odd snifter.

So, while it’s not exactly a sobering experience, it is certainly a thought-provoking one. On the flight back, I get chatting to a friendly, garrulous Swedish woman, off with her third husband and extended family to a holiday in America, and I think: “These people are not knobs. Will wonders never cease?” And then the first thing I see in the copy of this magazine that I buy on landing at Heathrow is a piece by Craig Raine. But I don’t have the money to flee the country again for a while. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.