REVIEW

How accurate are all the cliches about Sweden?

Sweden. A small nation at the top of the world populated by over-sexed blonde, blue-eyed Volvo drivers. Or so the stereotypes would have you believe.

Of course, the reality is somewhat different as David Crouch, a former editor at the Financial Times and the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What We Can Learn From It, discovered when he moved to the country in 2013. For a start, Crouch found that many of those blondes are fake. Sad, but true.

Man with a pram: not every stereotype that has attached itself to Sweden is wide of the mark. Picture: Shutterstock

Man with a pram: not every stereotype that has attached itself to Sweden is wide of the mark. Picture: Shutterstock

However, not every stereotype that has attached itself to Sweden is wide of the mark. Sweden is quite rightly regarded by citizens of meaner societies as a generous welfare state, or to borrow a cliché that Crouch seems particularly fond of, "a land of milk and honey".

This is a country that routinely tops global rankings in childcare, parental leave, work-life balance and environmental protections. But it's also an economic overachiever, one whose not-entirely-free free market has given rise to IKEA, H&M and Spotify.

How do they do it? That's what Crouch seeks to uncover here in a wide-ranging book that considers everything from the role of the family in Swedish society to the curiously cooperative relationship that exists between the country's trade unions and its business community.

Saltsjbaden, quite literally 'the Salt Sea baths', is where it all began, according to Crouch. In December 1938, the Saltsjbaden Agreement was signed at the Stockholm hotel of the same name, launching "an era of consensus and collaboration between capital and labour" that prevails to this day.

Compared to Australia's combative and dysfunctional industrial relations landscape, the one encountered in Almost Perfekt comes across as positively alien.

Compared to Australia's combative and dysfunctional industrial relations landscape, the one encountered in Almost Perfekt comes across as positively alien.

Trade unions are popular, wages are set centrally, and employers fund job transition schemes that help laid off employees re-enter the workforce. That last bit begs repeating: employers fund job transition schemes.

The union-mandated "security of transition," as opposed to the typical union demand of job security, is one of the peculiarities of the Swedish model.

It's also one that helps safeguard against the destruction that is part and parcel of capitalism. It's easy to kill off under-performing businesses when you know there's an effective safety net in place for those who'll soon be out of a job.

Family policy is another area where Sweden's common sense approach seems to work, although not always as effectively as policymakers originally intended. After the birth of a child, Swedish parents are entitled to 240 days leave to be taken within the first eight years of the child's life. That's mums and dads.

But despite Sweden's family-focused policies enjoying wide support - indeed, Crouch meets parents who say they wouldn't have been able to afford to start families elsewhere - entrenched social norms have proven difficult to shift.

Karen Forseke, the former chief executive of Swedish investment bank Carnegie, tells Crouch that women still shoulder a disproportionate burden when it comes to home life. Observing that it's typically women who leave work early to pick up the kids, Forseke says "this is still a patriarchal society".

It's also one confronting the rise of right wing populism, and worse. Sweden has never come to terms with its complicity with Nazi Germany during the war. Remember, the Swedes allowed German soldiers to pass through its territory en route to occupied Norway, and happily sold ball bearings to Nazi munitions makers, actions that made a mockery of their "non-belligerent" claim.

Crouch doesn't get into this history here, but the country's willingness to turn a blind eye has allowed ugly forces to reconstitute themselves in the shadows. Over the past few years, neo-Nazis have taken to the streets while hateful killers have targeted Africans, Muslims and the country's Roma population.

Still, despite some one or two significant omissions, Almost Perfekt delivers on what it set out to achieve. Crouch leaves his reader with a good sense of what makes Sweden work and, more to the point, what we can learn from its example.

And Australia? Well, we could learn quite a lot from this book. Listed in no particular order: regulated capitalism works. Workplace hierarchies can be damaging. Short-termism, in anything, rarely leads to good outcomes.

Childcare should be accessible and affordable - which is to say, not run for profit. And immigrant populations should be assisted to enter the workforce.

But if we're to heed one lesson from the Swedish example, it's that cooperation trumps competition. The apparent absence of a win-at-all-costs mentality, and the evident cooperation between the state and the private sector, have helped the Swedes build a society that outperforms ours in many areas.

The question is, if a tiny nation at the top of the world can achieve these things, what's stopping a mid-sized nation at the bottom of the world?

  • Almost Perfekt, by David Crouch. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.
  • T.J. Collins is a Sydney writer, essayist and critic
This story Is Sweden as 'perfekt' as we think? first appeared on The Canberra Times.