Opinion: What can Sweden teach us about liberalism?

One of the great experiences in life is reading a text which suddenly throws new light on an issue or expresses a feeling which had been nagging away at you without reaching expression.  It has happened to me when I have read some of the classics of liberal thought.  And, bizarrely, it happened a few weeks ago when reading a column in the Guardian.

The column by Lars Tragardh expressed doubts as to whether the Swedish model (in its current manifestation under a centre-right government) was compatible with Cameron’s conservative ideology.  He pointed out that the Swedish combination of a strong state with powerful individual rights is a long way from the communitarian “big society” espoused by Cameron. True enough, but it is highly compatible with the values of the Liberal Democrats and offers an ideological way forward which draws clear distinctions between the coalition parties.

I have long felt a sense of uneasiness about the “big society” without being able to put my finger on precisely why.  This article convinced me that it is not a liberal concept and we should fight against attempts to shift responsibilities from the state to community groups.  The “big society” agenda is built on a flawed assumption.  Economists have long recognised that excessive state expenditure can “crowd out” private investment.  The “big society” ideology extends this analysis to the area of social interaction – if the state is too big, it is said that local initiatives are displaced.  However, this approach is wrong on two levels.

First, it enshrines inequality because rich areas have much greater capacity to support community-based initiatives than poor areas.  In poorer areas, the “big society” approach would say that local people should be given the freedom to improve their areas.  The Swedish approach would say that you should build top-class state provision in order to liberate people from their surroundings.  I know which I think is the more realistic (and liberal). Secondly, a strong and effective state helps build strong communities – it does not displace them.  I recently moved to Twickenham in the London Borough of Richmond and love the strong community feel to the local area.  A lot of that community feel is driven by people’s support for local schools which in turn benefit from an effective local council which has over many years delivered primary schools which are amongst the best in the country.

So, good and effective state provision is something Liberal Democrats should support.  As Lars Tragardh makes clear, it liberates people and is the foundation of true liberty.  But that does not mean that we lapse into the soggy producer-ism that often seems to be the left’s alternative – the Swedish state developed the “free school” concept which has also been taken up by the coalition.  In my view, with the crucial addition of the “pupil premium”, that is a liberal approach.  It is easy to criticise the barrage of educational initiatives in England over the last few years.  However, the evidence of Wales (which opted out) is not promising – they fell further behind in educational achievement.

So, our mission should not be to reduce state provision in order to allow more “big society” initiatives in but to improve the effectiveness of state services.  That improvement may involve elements of diversity of provision and competition coupled with increased resources to those areas that really need it.  I would like to see a Swedish slant to our policies – good state provision plus strong individualism and free enterprise.  As Lars Tragardh puts it in the conclusion of his article, “while we know that Sweden actually works, the big society remains a distant dream.”

* Mark Goodrich is a former vice-chair of Richmond & Twickenham Liberal Democrats, a former expat who saw Brexit unfold from the other side of the world and now lives in Sevenoaks, Kent

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  • As someone with links to Sweden I agree wholeheartedly with Trägårdh’s article. The strength of Sweden’s system lies in empowering individuals and thereby delivering equality of provision of opportunity. Gender equality is enshrined in the idea of state-sponsored parental leave, for instance.
    What Britain could learn from Sweden is that equality works. Take away private schools and watch the level of local state schools rise. Don’t even consider faith schools – faith is a personal matter, not a state one. Keep the differentials in pay between top and bottom of a company low, and everyone has a similar stake (and all feel valued).
    Overall it is a policy of facilitation. Of course it isn’t perfect (what system is?) but it’s as close as I’ve seen, and you’re right – it is the nearest thing to true liberalism as you’re likely to get.
    All this with no nuclear weapons too.

  • Alan – “Take away private schools and watch the level of local state schools rise”

    Leaving aside the issue of whether this is liberal or not; it won’t work. Or rather, it will,; but only in the sense that such schools would be recreated as the wealthy clustered ever more together. We already see it today. the best performing state schools are in the wealthiest, least socially diverse areas.

    Far better to make entry to the best schools totally meritocratic by state payments for anyone who cannot afford the fees.

  • Alan – thanks for your comment. I don’t think we will be able to recreate Sweden in Britain but let’s at least get the direction of travel right.

    My concern is that we seem to be partially buying into an anti-state rhetoric when the state is absolutely vital for empowering individuals. However, getting state provision to work is a tough and endless task because it has to be continually reinvented as life changes (and it is much easier to leave things as they area). But it needs doing.

    Thanks also for getting the proper Swedish letters in Trägårdh’s name. I confess I was too lazy to work it out.

  • Tabman – I don’t believe that Sweden bans private schools (and I certainly wouldn’t advocate it even it does). But it has very good state schools. There is a legitimate debate to what extent that is due to the free school programme but there is no doubt that the state invests money but also expertise in making them top class. The combination of the pupil premium to level things up and an element of choice should be good for standards.

    Also, I don’t think your statement is quite accurate. The state schools with the best results are indeed those in the wealthiest areas but they are not necessarily the “best performing”. There is plenty of evidence that some schools with really difficult intakes in London are performing exceptionally and certainly better than a lot of suburban schools coasting along with motivated kids and parents. We need to find ways to make that the rule rather than the exception.

  • Mark G – I’m not familiar with Sweden’s education system. Do you know if they have academic selection?

    I also believe they have an insurance based health system with diversity of provision.

  • Comprehensive all the way, I believe…. Incidentally, although my understanding is that state schooling (including nusery provision) is high-class, there were definitely some concerns that it was too monolithic and led to some producer capture – hence, the free school programme.

    I think you are right on health – in general, the Swedes seem both firmly pro-state and agnostic on methods of delivery. In my view, it’s a good combination.

  • Jedibeeftrix – I am genuinely not sure what you mean by the “personally stifling social compact” of Scandinavian social democracy. Could you clarify?

  • There is the other point that traditionally Scandinavain societies have been highly ethnically homogenous. Add to that the necessity of intense co-operation required to exist in such harsh climates, and its easy to see where the model comes from. The Swedish social compact has been severely challenged in recent years by the sudden increase in ethnic and cultural diversity.

  • Scandinavia has been influenced by Lutheranism which placed great empahsis on literacy. At one time , a couple had to prove they were literate to a Lutheran pastor before could marry. Scandinavia has a culture which is respectful of literacy and numeracy ,has a good work ethic, high levels of honesty and people tend to keep fit through sensible eating and exercise. Lutheranism , like the Non-Conformism of 17-early 20 C UK, places great emphasism on personal responsibility which gave us the resurgence of Parliament in the mid 17 C, the Industrial Revolutionand the rise of the Libveral Party.

    Though children may not attend scholl until they are 6 or 7 , it would be interesting to compare their level of development with many British children. I wonder how many Scandinavian teachers have to deal with children who are not potty trained?

    The problem in the UK is that the type of characters portrayed in “Shameless” , Vicky Pollard ofLittle Britain are a much higher percentage of the population which result in a high proportion of the state spending. Austria, is another country withh high standards beacuse they have a culture which very similar to that of Scandinavia.

    fWhether a State is weak or strong what is important is that the employees are competent and accountable. As Sir John Harvey Jones said” The Royal Navy up to the time of Nelson was the finest management trainingscheme in the World”.

    The problem is that in the UK , there is too high a percentage of the population who are not interested in taking gresponsibility for their education, training and health ans interfer with those who do. If one looks at teenage pregnancy which is much lower in Scandinavia , Holland and Austria because of better sex education, an attitude that is critical of peoples inability to use contraception and different welfare rules. Liberty requires responsibility, otherwise it can easily become licentiousness.

  • Paul Holmes 9th Mar '12 - 11:04am

    Markg -There is no legitimate debate about how far the Swedish Free School experiment is responsible for the good standards of Sweden’s otherwise overwhelmingly comprehensive school system. The Swedish Government’s own analysis of its 15 year experiment with Free Schools concludes that it has resulted in increased social and racial segregation, mainly been used by the middle class and has ‘coincided’ with a fall in overall national educational attainment -not the increase that it was supposed to produce.

    Not a surprising outcome as the international PISA studies repeatedly show that the most successful national educational outcomes come from Comprehensive systems and that the more divided and selective a system is the more there is a huge tail of under achievement which drags down the nation’s overall performance.

    But the ideological fixation with market based competition as the answer to everything is not interested in evidence based policy making especially when profit seeking companies add their paid for spin to the political ideologies and propaganda of those such as Gove. It was the same under New Labour when the success of their Excellence in Cities programme, in raising standards, did not fit with Blair’s ideological approach and so was scrapped in favour of the more expensive and less successful Academies approach.

  • Plenty of lively comments this morning!

    Very briefly – Jedibeeftrix – what I didn’t understand in your comment was the reference to “personally stifling social compact”. The quote you have produced doesn’t seem to be at all “personally stifling” to me. As the quote makes clear, it is a liberator from traditional forms of community which are likely to be much more “personally stifling”.

    Cultural explanations – clearly, there is sometthing to the traditional strong respect for literacy and culturally homogenous society but I don’t think this is the be all and end all for strong state provision. Japan has both of those characteristics but a small state and, I would have to say, a “big society”. There are political choices involved as well. Whilst I don’t suggest we could all be model Scandinavians….I equally despair of the view above that we cannot do anything because of the irresponsbile/feckless state of British society. I don’t believe that either.

    Paul Holmes – you put your case against the Swedish free schools very powerfully. I am aware that there are other views and some studies quoted by free school advocates indicating that they tend to increase standards in the local area. I don’t pretend to be knowledgeable enough to come to a determination but, again,let’s focus on what is effective without, as you say, getting hung up on the view that it always has to be the market.

  • Simon – you make an entirely fair point that I am using a narrow concept of “big society”. Or to put it another way, I am using the Conservative concept….and in that sense I don’t think it is a misunderstanding to think that it might mean handing over state provision to the voluntary sector.

    I don’t disagree with your liberal version of “big society” at all. But we need to distinguish it which is why we should stop talking about “big society”.
    We can avoid the vacuous title – your description of “active citizenship” is what we are about and is quite different. For example, my experience of Japan was that it had a “big society” in that people cared about and looked after each other and were very neighbourly but it had a very low level of active citizenship – this changed somewhat in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami when a number of people really took control of their lives and communities.

  • Jedibeeftrix – I don’t misunderstand your view because that comment wasn’t aimed at you! You made it clear that you liked how things were in the UK although I don’t accept at all your view that Sweden intervenes more heavily in private life than the UK, Quite the reverse – hence the curious but appealing mix of decent state provision with a highly individualistic society.

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