Why Sweden is turning right after decades of centrist politics

Much of the country is a very long way from the earthly paradise the Social Democrats once seemed to deliver.

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In advance of the Swedish general election, the New York Times carried the alarmist headline: “How the far right conquered Sweden.” The far right has not conquered Sweden. Nor is it going to. Three years after the country accepted a huge number of Syrian refugees (it received 162,877 asylum applications  – equivalent to around a million in Britain) the leading anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats (SD), raised its share of the vote by five points (to 17.6 per cent) in the 9 September general election and finished third (behind the incumbent Social Democrats and the centre-right Moderate Party).

It still won’t have a place in government, although it may determine which of the more respectable parties can form an administration. Yet this is a much smaller backlash than one might expect in Britain or other EU member states.

Almost all the parties have now adopted the SD’s views on immigration, if not on integration (for the SD believes that Muslim, or otherwise non-white immigrants, can’t truly be assimilated). They reject its rhetoric. But what has really threatened the established parties is not so much racial resentment as a loss of trust in the state that they all want to control.

Thirty years ago, I lived in Uddevalla, a small industrial town on the west coast of Sweden, north of Gothenburg. Drug crime then was typified by my friend Ulf, a welder at the shipyards, distilling his bootleg vodka – which bit your throat like a wolf – with an apparatus hung over the top of the kitchen door. Since then, the town has changed and so has the crime. Two years ago, a couple of Arab drug dealing brothers on the same estate shot dead three teenagers in a parked car after a row over money. One was arrested and the other fled to his family in Lebanon.

In the intervening years, the shipyard had closed along with almost all the other industries, the army barracks and the hospital. My friend, the part-time bootlegger, had moved to the other side of town. The estate where we’d lived, once a wholly Swedish example of the welfare state’s largesse, was now dominated by refugees. A Somali family lived in our old flat. Kurdish women in headscarves watched outsiders suspiciously; the radio producer I was with spoke Arabic to an Iraqi refugee. A local journalist explained to me that the port was now used by Turkish heroin-smuggling gangs.

This isn’t the apocalypse. I’d still rather live in Uddevalla than in any comparably deindustrialised small town in England or Scotland. But it is a very long way from the earthly paradise that the Social Democrats once seemed to deliver. And for most of these years there was no party that centre-left voters could support that seemed outraged and horrified by these changes. It is hardly surprising that nearly a fifth of voters do resent them, and that is why they have voted for the SD (whose roots lie in neo-Nazism, including a movement called “Keep Sweden Swedish”).

The once hegemonic Social Democrats, who averaged 45 per cent of the vote in the 20th century (twice exceeding 50 per cent), won 28.4 per cent, their lowest share since 1908. The rival Left Party, meanwhile, increased its share to 7.9 per cent – up two points. Yet the vote share of the SD, which recently backed a referendum on EU membership (“Swexit”), rose by more than twice that.

In the last televised debate before the election, Jimmie Åkesson, the leader of the Sweden Democrats, delivered an obviously prepared attack on Annie Lööf, the leader of the Centre Party. The two represented the polar opposites, in both style and substance, of the immigration debate. Lööf spoke more warmly of immigrants than any other party leader.

Like every other Swedish politician today, she is in favour of tight border controls, but she strikes a welcoming tone towards refugees. Hence Åkesson’s attack: “The whole debate about integration has been about employment… if only the immigrants find jobs, then everything will be all right. That’s what everyone has always said. But it’s not happening. That’s not what happened. And so you have to ask the question – why is it so difficult for these people to find jobs? And it’s because they’re not Swedes. They don’t fit into Sweden. So obviously, it’s hard for them to get work.”

At this point, Lööf banged the rostrum in front of her and exclaimed: “What kind of language is this?” Åkesson talked over her: “For all these years, the immigrants have been welcomed on their terms, maintaining their customs and cultures. And then you get this divided society, the alienation and so on…”

Lööf attempted once more to interrupt. Åkesson responded: “You’re always so angry, Annie Lööf. Stop shouting and yelling – this is a debate, after all.”

It was a Jeremy Clarkson put-down, and one that strengthened support for both the leaders involved. After the debate, SVT, the state television channel on which they appeared, formally dissociated itself from Åkesson’s remarks, which contained “gross exaggerations”. The SD, unsurprisingly, boycotted the channel’s further coverage and uploaded its own YouTube version, featuring the broadcaster’s logo overlaid with a hammer and sickle.

It’s obvious that Åkesson exaggerates and simplifies. But in an election, all politicians do to some extent. The official line on immigrants and the economy is also full of half-truths; the SD has positioned itself as the party of the other half-truths.

It will never be able to deliver on its promises. But the long-term problem for Sweden is that none of the other parties may be able to do so either. Everyone noticed the collapse in the Social Democrats’ vote. But the Moderates, the Cameroon-esque party of tax cuts, privatisation, austerity and immigration, have lost nearly half their vote share since 2010 (they polled just 19.8 per cent in 2018). And the state at which they sliced away while in government may no longer be able to deliver the security that voters, whatever their party, truly want.

Andrew Brown is the author of “Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future That Disappeared”

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism