Calm, classless, striving for beauty: Yes, Scandinavia really is all it's cracked up to be

British commentators have been dismissing Scandinavian culture and politics using selective statistics and un-contextualised observations. But from smart young people to art and happiness: the qualities of Nordic life are well established.

Maybe it’s just sour grapes. I’ve been waiting years for a beautiful Scandinavian to whisk me off my feet and suggest we return to her homeland to live happily ever after, and it seems to have happened to Michael Booth by accident. And yet I couldn’t help feeling Booth’s lambasting of Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway in his "grim truth" assessment of life in the Nordic countries was more than a little cynical.

Booth was doing nothing more than indulging the time-honoured tradition of deflating something that’s been over-hyped – even if he did so via a smörgåsbord of selective statistics and un-contextualised observations. And he’s not alone. Those who believe our interest in Scandinavian ideals has gone too far have some potent new ammunition to play with: riots in Sweden, the downgrading of Finland’s education system and Norway’s excessive wealth wrought from its natural resources are all sticks with which we can beat those conceited Scandinavians, attempting to re-boot our own sense of moral worth in the process.

Most Finns and Scandinavians would feel pretty uneasy if they knew how their countries were so idolised elsewhere. Which is a good thing. Booth isn’t the first to cite the Nordic unease with "displays of success, ambition and wealth" as a weakness and he won’t be the last. But it’s precisely those qualities – yes, qualities – which give the Nordic countries their egalitarian atmosphere, entrenched liberalism and distinct lack of a ruling class in politics, the media and elsewhere.

History would suggest it isn’t a new thing. The Nordic countries were among the first in Europe to abolish the death penalty, give votes to women, legalise gay marriage and reach something like a consensus on green issues. Then there’s the inbuilt regard for foreigners. I was gobsmacked when I sat sweating in a Norwegian sauna a few years ago only for the wooden box to be overrun by a group of unruly teenagers on the equivalent of a stag weekend. When they’d done with the headlocks and towel-whips, they introduced themselves to me one by one, shaking me by the hand, welcoming me to their country, and offering me a potted history of the small town we were in.

Sure, that’s another un-contextualised observation. But the difference is, in the UK we’re taught to assume certain styles of behaviour will be forthcoming only from certain sectors of society. In the Nordic countries – particularly in Norway and Finland where there’s no discernable class system and private education is virtually non-existent – what you see is what you get: a society in which everyone really is in it together. The so-called "Nordic Model" of high taxes, principled social welfare provision and high community spending may be under strain (despite the gloomy reports, Scandinavian countries still accept a higher per capita proportion of immigrants and refugees than the vast majority of their European counterparts, and according to the 2013 European Social Survey those immigrants feel more welcomed, too) but the fact that the Nordic Model remains in operation is inseparable from that sense of togetherness.

Such "togetherness" might be indescribable, but it’s the indescribable qualities of the Nordic spirit that don’t show up on those statistics the Scandi-bashers love to cite. We talk of smart Nordic design as if it’s a commodity tied to wealth and status. But a striving for beauty is a central, instinctive and classless Nordic ideal induced by so many factors including hostile weather and a sometimes lonely exploration of what it is to be a human. It’s all over the place up there: from the emancipated typeface on railway station signage to the modernist domestic furniture and proliferation of bold architecture. These things aren’t about social signaling or financial security. They’re about making life fundamentally more sensible, and their residue is what we’d optimistically call civilization.

Which in turn might explain why Scandinavians are among the happiest people on the planet. Social security and an emphasis on creativity (and major government support for the arts) make for the very opposite of the repression described by Booth. They actually create societies in which people are content because they have a voice and are willing to use it. True, many in Norway are uneasy with the country’s huge wealth, but that wealth has been consciously placed in the public domain by the Norwegian government – so everyone can benefit, yes, but also so everyone feels involved in the discussion. When I was in Stavanger in September, a spontaneous and open debate broke out in a café on the subject of oil wealth, corrupting capitalism and damage to the environment. Naturally, it was conducted in English for the benefit of the one non-Norwegian speaker in the room (me).

And now the political dialogue has its ugly side. UKIP equivalents have found themselves with support in Norway and Finland, and only a fool would dismiss their rise as transitory. Sweden’s failure to integrate its large immigrant population is more connected to technical detail than cultural will, but it is a failure nonetheless. The debate appears more raw because these are countries in which authority is naturally questioned, democracy is cleaved-to and voter engagement and activism is unusually high. The Nordic people – in the case of Norway and Finland, a young people occupying young countries which have changed fast in the last decade – voice their opinions in plain terms; sometimes it’s ugly, never is it avoided.

And rarely, in truth, does it embrace the ignorant and prejudiced. You can observe unsightly political posturing in the Nordic countries, you can even knock Finland for having dropped a few places in the worldwide educational leagues (though it still has the best schools in Europe according to the Pisa rankings). But recent political history does not a fair overview make. The Nordic countries are still the best examples of progressive societies in Europe, and it’s something you feel even more than you clock from statistics. I wouldn’t mind betting that progressiveness will overcome political fads, because it’s hard-wired into the way Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and even Icelanders carry themselves – in their natural modesty, their intense connection to the earth and their remarkable dance with capitalism which sees them touched by it but absolutely not defined by it. Spend some time in the Nordic countries and you may notice those things. You might also discover that Finns are more talkative, Norwegians less xenophobic and Swedes more emotionally open than their stereotypes would suggest ... and that there’s a little more to quality Danish TV than just The Killing.

Andrew Mellor is editor of Nordic culture website Moose Report, moosereport.net 

Swedish youth: polite and politically engaged. Photograph: Getty Images.
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit