In search of the Swedish soul

What most defines Sweden—its welfare state, Lutheranism, sex or Pippi Longstocking? Having lived there for 8 years, I've discovered it's much more complicated than we think
July 4, 2009

An examination of the Swedish soul must begin, I'm afraid, with sex. Not Volvo, not IKEA, not Alfa Laval nor H&M. Not Strindberg nor Dagerman nor even Astrid Lindgren and Pippi Longstocking. Not the welfare state, not income equality nor criminal justice. Not the Lutheran Church nor collective bargaining. Not the Vikings nor 200 years without war. It's that three letter word—and the half-myth about Swedish promiscuity—that is our starting point.

The town I live in, Lund, across the bridge from Copenhagen, hosts not only Scandinavia's oldest university and cathedral, it is full of high-tech companies including some of the ones mentioned above and many computer technology, biotech and pharmaceutical start-ups. It is where I have lived for the last eight years. It hosts thousand of students and the weekends are notoriously wild. But the students are bright and after I've given a lecture I like to take those who want to out for a drink.

Inevitably, the subject turns to sex and marriage. I'll never forget asking one group what they thought of marriage in a country where most educated young people (and half go to university) don't get married or bear children until they are well over 30. A young woman gave me a thoughtful answer and so I asked her, "What are you looking for in a husband?" Without batting an eye or pausing for thought, she answered: "Three things. One, he must be good in bed. Two, he must be a good father. Three, when we divorce, he mustn't be bitter."

I've tried this story out on all sorts of Swedes, and all ages, and they laugh a bit self-consciously and nod and say, "That's true," or "I'm afraid so." But if my student had been a little fairer she would have added that most Swedish men push the pram, do the nappies, get up in the night and help clean the house. Many, too, take at least six months off to look after the baby while the woman goes back to work.

Young students I know well, even though they are in a happy and what they call "permanent relationship" will say that they have no intention of getting married. Children, yes, but not until they are at least 35. Today's 35s still get married, although usually after the children are born. My generation universally did marry. But all three generations and a good part of the one before believe you should have all the sex you can reasonably find before marriage. Mind you, this generation is different in that it doesn't mate for love but for pleasure. The students here are big on one-night stands with people they barely know. (Their mothers and fathers are rather appalled.)

Women in this society hold their heads very high. Alexandra von Schwerin, a journalist and entrepreneur, explained it to me as she sees it: "They have been used to being independent since Viking times when the men went away for years in their long boats. Women began to be educated in large numbers at the beginning of the 20th century and equality has been pushed hard ever since. The glass ceiling in the business world still remains almost impenetrable for top positions, but in all the professions women have equal pay and authority. All women work. Women have been working for four generations now. My great-grandmother worked. And all working parents have access to a municipal-run creche for their children, even for those only a year old."

In short, a woman is almost as free as a man. Divorce is nothing to fear. The money and house will be divided equally without the need for an expensive divorce lawyer. Most divorced women sail happily along with no great financial worries, with a caring state ready to prop them up if something gives way.

So where did this attitude to sex and marriage come from? When I was a student we used to be told that it was the films of Ingmar Bergman, as well as the first feature film on general release to show sexual intercourse on screen—I am Curious, Yellow—which starred the late prime minister, Olof Palme, talking about sex. But in truth, this sexual liberation has roots that go much further back.

I asked the literary critic and secretary of the Nobel literature prize committee Horace Engdahl, about this. His answer was: "Urbanisation came late in Sweden, and consequently the influence of the middle class with its strict norms of sexual behaviour has been limited. In the countryside, boys and girls were traditionally allowed to make each other's acquaintance, to 'woo for the night' as long as they showed responsibility in avoiding or taking care of the consequences. Virginity has never been a big thing in Sweden."


The role of the countryside explains all manner of things. Swedes are entwined with it. In the summer very few go abroad, apart from young backpackers seeking adventure. Eighty per cent of the people want to be in their little red wooden summer house, preferably by a lake or the sea. (The poor have caravans.) Many summers are full of rain, but the memories stretching way back to childhood keep them coming back—marvellous warm summers with cousins pouring in to taste the fresh caught crayfish and to frisk in the unpolluted water. A quick look at the cosy, blossom filled paintings of Carl Larsson puts you right in the picture. The idyll can be true.

Historically, the aristocracy was spread thin in the countryside and there was no large and powerful rural upper or even middle class that wanted to enclose the peasants' land and push them out to work in the dark satanic mills. Hence the yeoman peasants ruled the countryside and this is the origin of the near-classless society of modern Sweden. It is also, as Prime Minister Fredrick Reinfeldt explained to me, why war has been out of favour in Sweden for over 200 years. "In the 18th and 17th centuries the idea of Sweden as a military superpower was solely the idea of the king. There was a handshake between royalty and the peasants. But eventually the peasants began to think that war and campaigning all over Europe, as far as Russia, was too heavy a burden. Because the peasants owned their own land they were autonomous. And so they rejected war, at a time when royalty was going through a weakened period after 1814."

In the 18th century Swedish prowess on the battlefield made it a European superpower. But the Napoleonic wars were its undoing: Sweden experienced its greatest ever defeat, losing Finland, a third of Sweden's territory and a quarter of its population, to the Russia of Tsar Alexander I. Sweden's generals still planned for war after that—and did right through to the cold war when, although officially neutral, they were clearly part of the western alliance's military infrastructure, even if the electorate was not allowed to know it. But on the face of things, Sweden renounced wars of aggression in 1814. From then on peace was perceived as Swedish and wars as European. Swedes today like to think, as members of the EU, that the Swedish peace has now been Europeanised.

In the second world war Sweden did make a Faustian pact with Hitler that in return for its neutrality it would allow the transit of iron ore to Germany's industrial war machine. Following the end of the war Sweden developed a guilty conscience over its failure to have done so little to help its Nordic neighbours. However, it did bask in Jewish praise for having cooperated with the Danish resistance and given refuge to so many fleeing Jews. And ever since the war it has transformed its guilty conscience by becoming the world's conscience over matters of third world development, helping to end apartheid in South Africa (it was the only western nation to give significant funds to the African National Congress), opposing the war in Vietnam and giving shelter to American deserters, cancelling its well-advanced effort to build its own nuclear bomb and, not least, being a vigorous and fairly consistent champion of human rights (although quite recently it spoiled its reputation by being party to President Bush's policy of rendition).

Lack of war is a major reason for Sweden's remarkable economic advance. In a matter of 100 years it moved from being one of the poorest parts of Europe with a massive exodus of near-starving people to America to being one of the two richest countries in Europe (the other was Switzerland.) It has produced more world-class industrial giants than any other country of its size. (At 9m, its population is less than that of the state of Michigan.)

While other European countries were struggling to rebuild themselves at the end of the second world war, Sweden was striding ahead. Perhaps inevitably it looked to America for inspiration which led to such un-European things as straight roads, old wooden towns knocked down to be replaced by ugly concrete flats—lending them a rather sterile ambiance which is not helped by the almost total absence of pubs and cafes (although lately immigrants have brought in pizza and kebab restaurants). Still, the countryside, masses of it, remains gorgeously undisturbed, and in summer appears like an unspoilt France of 50 years ago.


Maybe Sweden became too comfortable, too spoiled and resting on the laurels of its ubiquitous welfare state. Whatever the reason, in the 1970s and 1980s it lost its economic edge. In I992 a number of its banks crashed and had to be dramatically saved by the right-wing government of Carl Bildt. Sweden's success in nationalising the banks for a few years, restoring them to health and then privatising them at a handsome profit, is regarded as a model for crisis-torn countries today. (Nationalised industries have long been anathema—with a few exceptions—in this otherwise socialist state. Sweden, long before Thatcherism took hold, privatised its railways.)

More recently, though, Sweden has become one of the the leading internet technology countries. Under Prime Minister Goran Persson (1996-2006) the country's growth rate per head was consistently the highest in the western world and its unemployment one of the lowest. And this economic success has made the pursuit of equality and social well being relatively easy. Nevertheless, the roots of the pursuit of equality in Sweden go deeper.

When I asked my tenant, Karin Stalhammar—a clever, well read, medical student, aged 22—where this equality came from she replied, "We learned it just by growing up here. It has gone into our bloodstream." A trade union official I talked to, Eva Palsoon, echoed this: "I sometimes think we are born with it." Sophia Nerbrand, editor of the intellectual magazine, Neo, argues that it is "because Sweden never had feudalism. Everyone had their own land. We inherited the ethos of the village to work collectively." The current prime minister explained it to me thus: "We have a deeply held feeling we can afford it. The Swedish electorate don't just look at their own wallet. They do want to see poorer people better off."

Yet in spite of this, the rich in Sweden do stay rich. I asked one friend, Rikard Uddenberg, a prosperous businessman, how this was. "The tax system was very harsh 30 years ago. If you had a good idea it was difficult to expand. But there have been many changes since then, starting with Olof Palme's government and gathering speed since then. Now Sweden's corporate tax is lower than many other countries."

He admits that when he grew up the prevailing ethos among the rich was to secretly put their money in Liechtenstein. "That's how I thought too." But he had had a road to Damascus event in his life. Four years ago his first born baby was diagnosed with a dangerous heart ailment. She was treated by a Libyan doctor in one of the world's top children's heart clinics in Sweden and has now recovered, a happy little girl. "Then I realised what went on inside the system I had rather derided. I saw what the tax system did with our money and how effective it was. The treatment did not cost me a kronor. More than anything this changed my attitude."

Even the current, conservative Swedish prime minister doesn't want to change this attitude or these facts. "We are not building a separate system. We just want better results, so people can grow," he has said.

At the moment Reinfeldt is leading the four conservative parties who form the government to reform some of the deeply held attitudes of Swedish society. "What we are is anti-conformity. We have opened up the schools and health services to competition and worked to end the many monopolies in our society." The propensity towards conformity bugs both Reinfeldt and many of the foreigners who work or study here. When I said that I find the Swedes are the Japanese of Europe, he nodded his head in agreement.

Apart from a well-travelled elite, the majority of people look down on those who buck the Swedish lifestyle trend—those who are a day late at the end of every month with paying their bills, those who cross the street before the light turns green even if no traffic is coming, those who miss a meeting of the committee of tenants that supervise their block of flats, those who don't do immediately what the committee has told them to do. (The penalties are severe—as I found out. You can be thrown onto the street for disobeying, even though you own your flat). Swedes just about can bring themselves to vote for different parties. But when it comes to big issues they usually follow the Stockholm elite's concensus. Very rarely is there a furious debate in parliament or the courtroom. People prefer to agree than disagree. Still, on rare occasions, the Swedes can laugh at themselves (although humour is more often verging on the slapstick than clever or ironic). Pippi Longstocking, for example, is everything Swedes are not—the way she dressed, her abhorrence of convention, even bringing her pet horse to live in her house—but they love her.

Swedes tell you that there is pressure in society not to raise your head too far above the parapet. One shouldn't push too hard to get ahead, to ask too demandingly for a salary increase, to engage in conspicuous consumption, to build too big a house or to own too posh a car or dress in a fancy or even stylish way. The very well cut business suit or skirt and jacket, much less the bejewelled theatre, concert or partygoer are not welcomed.


The Swedes are constantly debating education—partly because the 1960s batch of teachers, now rather senior, have such a laid back attitude and the pupils no longer behave very well. (They have no idea how good the children are compared to their British counterparts.) Tove Klette, leader of the ruling Folk Party in Lund's town hall, worries that in today's world "we need the creme de la creme to create a more competitive system. We must start with the schools. We must copy Finland which comes top of the world's league table in education. We have to raise the status and the respect given to teachers. We need teachers with PhDs, as in Finland, and let them, when not teaching, do research. We need streaming and fast tracking." There are only a few of what we would call fee-paying public schools in the whole of Sweden. The overwhelming majority of schools are comprehensives, and do well on the international league tables, better than Britain, France or Germany, and they are often as good as Britain's top public schools. And a new batch of private schools, launched by the Bildt government a decade ago, are as well supported by the government as are state schools. A kind of voucher system exists for all children and educational practice in Sweden is constantly changing and being improved.

Yet even Klette's counterpart, the Social Democrat leader Anders Almgren concedes that with the educational and welfare state as it is today, "We are in danger of thinking that it is part of natural science and can't be changed. We should never get too tolerant of abuse of the system, or become naive. We should never allow people to abuse the welfare state—this then becomes an excuse for discarding the fundamentals of the Swedish model."

At the same time he is worried that the more rigorous and competitive policies of the government are undermining Sweden's sense of equality in education and health. "The private health clinics cream off the easy, money making, cases and leave the difficult ones to the national health service. And in the small towns a private school can rob the sole state school of its best pupils."

The universities need a shake-up too. Now that the OECD are publishing annual league tables for European universities they can see how well or poorly they are doing. Lund and Uppsala (often referred to wrongly as the Oxbridge of Sweden) are down in the mid forties. Copenhagen, a few kilometres away, is in the first ten. Per Eriksson, the vice-chancellor of Lund University, says they are planning changes—including a late attempt to recruit well-paid foreign professors to replace some of the ingrown Swedish ones and ordering lecturing for all masters' degrees to be in English. One advantage of Swedish universities, though, is that there are no fees, which is very helpful to a freelance writer like me and is why foreign students flock here—a very good investment for Sweden.


One thing one can say with little debate is that Swedish society is a post-religious one. But although its attachment to Lutherism has died, its social mores still reflect its heritage. As Nietzsche once wrote, "Those who have abandoned God cling much harder to their moral beliefs." Reinfeldt echoes the sentiment. "Without the link to God anymore, the basic ideas stayed on."

Three examples of this stand out: drugs, alcohol and prostitution. There is very little prostitution. It's always been penalised, but now the penalties fall mainly on the customer rather than the prostitute. Which man wants to see his name in the papers? Likewise, there has long been a tough attitude to drugs. Children at school are gently brainwashed on the subject—although my daughter when 16 was prepared in a school debate (by her own will) to echo her father's point, that legalisation would reduce the problem. The teacher appeared not to welcome her intervention. How is it that Sweden has successfully kept drugs out to a greater extent than many other countries? Once again Swedish conformism provides a good part of the answer.

Alcohol is a more divisive issue. In the 19th century Sweden had a vodka problem. Prohibition came in and did have a dramatic effect on consumption, despite the forest stills. Later in the early 20th century the government eased up and allowed state-owned shops to sell very high priced alcohol. Certainly price is a deterrent, although Goran Persson, when prime minister, complained to me that EU policies on free trade were eating away at high prices and thus increasing alcohol drinking in Sweden. (Swedes rarely drink in moderation each day of the week; their idea of fun is to over drink at the weekend.)


Sweden has long been seen as a cultural backwater in Europe. Only in the last 100 years, as transport and trade have improved, did Sweden plug into the rest of Europe. Go back to the 18th century, much less the 16th, there is no Shakespeare, no Milton, no Jane Austen or, to compare it with Russia, no Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Chekhov. Similarly, there have been no truly great artists, composers, or philosophers. (Denmark has had Kierkegaard, Norway Grieg and Finland Sibelius.) However, it has produced two important film makers: Bergman and Jan Troell whose latest film, Everlasting Moments, recently opened in the US.

Few students read much literature and Swedish newspapers, by the standards of Europe and even its neighbour, little Denmark, are second rate. For Swedes, young and old, the world is a far away place about which they know little. (Nevertheless, almost paradoxically, they are the most generous of all peoples in helping poorer nations.)

When I asked Horace Engdahl about all this he replied somewhat defensively: "High culture is every bit as important as it is in Germany, France or Britain, and has a comparative amplitude, if you consider the relative size of these nations. [Sweden's population is around one seventh of Britain's.] More people watch theatre than football. The same thing goes for opera, which has been experiencing an upsurge. More books are sold and read than ever before in history. My sons know more about opera and contemporary art than I did in school, and read philosophy."

I give Engdahl his due. "The question about the extent of high culture," I said diplomatically, "remains an open one."


But, perhaps most important of all, Swedes are happy and almost as family orientated as the Italians. One survey says they are the happiest nation in the world, despite their taciturnity, their love of privacy and their lack of hospitality to strangers. Some disagree—according to Sibylla Weigert, who is a senior architect with IKEA, "Swedes are very 'I' orientated. Before I had children and we had a lot of girlie get-togethers a common line of conversation was how can I get my husband to see how important I am."

But Christina Ramberg, a top commercial lawyer from Gothenburg and someone who always votes right, was the most articulate of all the people I talked to. She argued that, "Sweden is a wonderful place for women and children. Swedes are more economically productive than anyone else because at work we work. We work very hard even without the boss being on our backs. That's why we have a high national income and can take the longest holidays of any industrialised nation. Moreover, we don't see the state as an opponent, but as a friend. I find it hard, having travelled and worked all over the world, to come up with any negatives about Sweden."

No negatives? Well, a few, in my opinion. Pushed by my homesick Swedish wife I arrived from living in sunny Spain right by the sea and almost immediately went into depression. The weather was grey and forbidding, and the people similar. I found it difficult to make friends or to make an entry into university life. I was isolated. I sat by myself for weeks on end in a dungeon of a cafe writing a book. My 17 year-long marriage ended in divorce, although my daughter, now 18 keeps me here. After six years I began to find my feet. Now I have a large, wonderful, and loyal batch of friends, better than any other time in my life. Maybe I'll stay here. But it's been a long journey and I would surmise that a majority of foreigners have not dissimilar experiences. But in fairness, I would conclude that Sweden is not at all bad—given how the rest of world is.