Why Sweden's not perfect, after all

The Swedes seem to slide effortlessly into first place - or thereabouts - in bloody everything worth

There's always one person at a party who puts the rest of us to shame, isn't there? While everyone else frets about the dress code, they turn up in just the right outfit, neither too casual nor too dressy. While we make gaffes and swear, they say just the right thing, neither too loud, nor so reserved as to seem frosty. They drink enough to be convivial, but never so much as to get drunk, naked and start dry-humping the stereo system. They are, indeed, the coolest person in the room, making everyone else seem a bit shabby by comparison.

Reading a couple of breaking reports last week, it occurred to me that, when it comes to the international community, Sweden is pretty much always that cool person at the party. The Swedes seem to slide effortlessly into first place - or thereabouts - in bloody everything worth prizing, don't they? They are healthy - they have one of the longest life expectancies in the world. They are friendly - they have just been named the best country in Europe when it comes to welcoming immigrants and helping them to settle.

They are intelligent - they have the highest per capita ratio of Nobel laureates. They gave us Abba, the most karaoke-friendly pop group of all time. And last year the Daily Mail asked "Is Sweden the most boring country in the world?" before giving the country a right drubbing. Now, if there's anything that can establish something's innate coolness as quickly as a thorough slagging from the Daily Mail, I have yet to discover it.

And, if all that weren't enough, for the second year running Sweden has been named as the country that has done the most to reduce gender disparity. The Global Gender Gap Report 2007, put together by the World Economic Forum, surveyed 128 countries and considered four markers of equality - economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment and health. They found that "while no country has yet achieved gender equality, Sweden, Norway and Finland have all closed over 80 per cent of the gender gap and thus serve as a useful benchmark for international comparisons". The UK didn't do too badly, although we dropped out of the top ten, to number 11, well behind our Nordic rivals. And the world's leading economy, the US, plummeted from 23rd to 31st - just one place ahead of Kazakhstan.

Which begs the question - what makes Sweden so good for women? The country has long had a progressive outlook, of course, which has seen it institute a host of women-friendly policies over the years, often far ahead of other nations. So, for instance, women and men were granted equal inheritance rights way back in 1845; in 1901, Sweden introduced a formal programme for maternity leave; in 1965 it became the first nation to have a law against rape in marriage. More recently, in 1998, there came the Act Prohibiting the Purchase of Sexual Services, which makes the buying of sex illegal.

This groundbreaking policy emphasises Sweden's commitment to gender equality - creating a distinct mark in the sand that says that the buying of one sex by another is fundamentally wrong. (Sweden also, notably, often combines public education campaigns with its legislative changes, leading to wide acceptance of the measures - 80 per cent of the population supports the government's stance on prostitution.)

It's not just progressive policies that mark Sweden out, though - it's having a system of high taxation to make them work. It's all very well, for instance, suggesting a policy for parental - note that's "parental" rather than simply "maternity" - leave that adds up to a generous 480 days per child to be shared between parents, but not much use if you don't have the high taxes necessary to support it. Equally, it's all very well having an extensive public childcare system for children aged one to 12, but a nonsense unless the cash is there. Sweden has one of the world's highest rates of taxation, and the system clearly works for them - in another recent report by the World Economic Forum, it was found to have the world's fourth most competitive economy.

I know, I know. If Sweden's so bloody brilliant, why don't I just move there? Well, for one thing, there's the high price of booze (largely due to taxation) and its restricted availability. This undoubtedly helps keep Sweden at the top of those world health rankings, but might be a bit too much of a culture shock for me.

There's the fear that Sweden's relatively new, centre-right coalition government might roll back some of the country's key selling points. And then there's the news, which emerged last week, that Sweden's new equal opportunities ombudsman - a woman - is to be paid considerably less than her male predecessor, even though one of her key tasks is to encourage equal pay regardless of gender.

Oh, well. It just goes to show. Even the most perfect person at the party sometimes knocks over a wine glass, don't they?

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?