Roger Boyes in Malmö
If there is a revolution coming to Sweden you would not want to be on the wrong side of Josefin. Watched by open-mouthed sparring partners, she thunders her fists against a punchball as if to say: “Some iron has entered the Swedish soul.”
And so it has. Sweden, renowned for decades as the model of cosy womb-to-tomb welfare socialism, has suddenly become a much rawer place.
The centre-right governing coalition of Fredrik Reinfeldt, which came to power last autumn, is seen by David Cameron as a potential template for Tory fortunes. Since the election they have seemed determined to roll back the nanny state after many decades of Social Democratic feather-bedding.
On the agenda is abolition of wealth tax, cuts in income tax and a privatisation programme that is already starting to excite foreign investors.
But the most symbolic act so far has been lifting the 37-year ban on professional boxing, outlawed by the Social Democrats as cruel and morally dubious. “It was a political move, not a medical one,” says coach Peter Bermsten, as Josefin rubs herself down. “It took a political decision to bring us back to reason.”
We are talking in the Fox fight club in Malmö, its walls plastered with yellowing posters from the days when Sweden was a world-class boxing nation. One, from 1959, shows Ingemar Johansson set to thump the heavyweight Floyd Patterson.
Sweden has some catching up to do. “Boxing did not fit into the Social Democratic self-image of the Swedes in the 1960s,” says Åse Sandell, a towering flaxen-haired middleweight, who has risen to the top of women’s boxing only by moving to the United States.
Boxing is booming again and Sandell has become the idol of a new generation. The smack of leather on leather, the grunt of young boxers who are no longer confined to heavily regulated amateur bouts: this is the sound and the fury of a cultural revolution in the making. Not the whiff of cordite, but of embrocation and sweat.
Sweden’s social welfare model, so admired by Gordon Brown, was ripe for overhaul. Indeed, so ripe that the Social Democrats grudgingly started their own reforms, cutting down, for example, on Europe’s most generous sick-leave arrangements, which were blamed for turning a healthy nation into a society of work-dodgers.
But they ducked the key question: how much should the state steer the inner life of the individual? This, after all, is a country that bans all television advertising aimed at the under-12s, and where the Government retains a monopoly on alcohol sales to stop people drinking too much.
As we stand with Anders Ljungberg, a local journalist, in Malmö’s immigrant quarter, we see a group of Kurdish teenagers scuffling playfully at the bus stop. A Volvo draws up and a white Swede leans out of the window; the kids quieten down. “He was ticking them off,” Mr Ljungberg says. “He probably told them that there were better ways of behaving.”
The greatest compliment you can pay a child in Sweden, says Åke Daun, a sociologist, is to say that he is tyst och fin, quiet and well-behaved. The Social Democrats came into power in 1932, have ruled for 65 of the past 74 years and ensured that Swedish adults, too, were tyst och fin. They paid the highest taxes in Europe and in return got the biggest handouts. Parents pay a maximum of £90 a month for childcare, receive up to 80 per cent of their salary during their 390-day maternity leave, receive free university education and access to free retirement homes.
But the sums, even with the current strong economic growth, do not add up. Swedes are afraid of losing their privileges. But they are even more afraid that they will slip down the prosperity league. In 1970 they had the fourth-highest per capita income in the world. Now, as the sociologist Johan Norberg says: “If Sweden was one of the states of America, it would be the fifth poorest.”
“We have to make it easier to get work,” says Djordje Jovanovic, 72, a former waiter who helped to vote the Social Democrats out of power. “I don’t want us to lose our wealth. When I go to my place on the Costa del Sol I see really poor Brits pocketing the bread that they get with their soup in cheap restaurants. We shouldn’t stoop that low, and that means working harder here, securing our future.”
At H&M, the Swedish fashion retailer, we meet Johana Hållin, a 28-year-old teacher. “We have to make it more profitable to work than to be on social welfare,” she says with passion, and she really does seem to be the voice of young Sweden. Certainly she fits into our caricature of a Swede: blonde, funny, she even teaches the Swedish language.
Yet Sweden is losing its blonde-ness. Some 23 per cent of the population of Malmö, Sweden’s third city, were born abroad; if their children, born in Sweden, are taken into account, over 35 per cent have foreign connections. Somalis, Afghans, Turks, Iraqis and Palestinians are all wedged into the state-sponsored estates in Malmö’s Rosengard district and almost all live on welfare.
So here is the most explosive issue in Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s quiet revolution: if he wants to cut social welfare handouts to force people to work, what happens to the foreigners who cannot get jobs because they are foreigners? They get poorer and, since they are being told constantly to behave more like Swedes, they will start to become more demanding. No more tyst och fin.
That is why Mr Reinfeldt has taken the unusual step of appointing Nyamko Sabuni as Integration Minister. She is neither blonde nor blue-eyed: she is originally from Burundi and is a Muslim. And rarely has a Swedish minister openly uttered such tough sentiments.
She wants to ban the head-scarf for girls under the age of 15, make visits to the gynaecologist compulsory for schoolgirls to ensure that they are not forcibly circumcised, cut state funds for Muslim schools and stopped funding for a Centre Against Racism. There is one central aim, she says: to get migrants into jobs. “Language and work are the keys to integration,” says Ms Sabuni. “The Social Democrats drove people into a dependency culture.” The Swedish model was based on a homogenous society — not only white, but also hard Protestant workers shy of public conflict and ever ready to work out consensus. That was the starting point for Gunnar and Alvar Myrdal, the spiritual founders of the welfare state in the 1930s. The assumption was that if it did not work in Sweden, with its population of only nine million, it would not work anywhere else.
It really does seem to be foundering. Sweden is a society full of hidden tensions and unemployment, an intrusive state and citizens frustrated by their lack of choice. It has been defeated not only by the arithmetic (of how to support an expanding legion of welfare claimants and pensioners on the basis of a shrinking workforce) but also by sharpening global competition.
Travel on the 999 bus from Copenhagen to Malmö across the formidable Oeresund bridge and the accompanying music is of clinking glass — bottles of booze bought in cheaper Danish shops. State-controlled alcohol sales, in southern Sweden at least, are sure to buckle.
In the 1970s toy shops were forbidden from selling warlike toys, even water pistols: now everything is available over the internet and 10-year-olds in Malmö can admire a plastic replica Nazi Tiger tank in a cheap unregulated high street store.
The Social Democrats trumpeted the defeat of street prostitution after passing a law that jails kerb-crawlers rather than women who sell their bodies. But trade has simply moved from the red light district on Industry Street to the laptop, with most assignations being made online.
The nanny state is on the retreat. The idea that a just society can be engineered by an all-seeing bureaucracy has had its day.
The admiration for Sweden from the British Left and Right is thus slightly puzzling. The interest of the Conservatives — David Cameron and George Osborne are recent visitors — can be explained by the need to find an example of how a long-lived Centre-left government can be toppled without polarising society.
But the real change in Sweden is coming from the people themselves. They want more freedom of choice and are willing to put with a few punches on the way. Ask Josefin. But watch out for her left hook.
— Sweden’s average tax bill (incl local and municipal taxes) is 56 per cent
— In 1970 it was the world’s fourth-richest country (GDP per capita); in 2000 the fourteenth-richest
— Official unemployment rate is 5.7 per cent; Eurostat estimates it at 7.1 per cent
— Since 1995 the number of self-employed people in the EU has risen 9 per cent; in Sweden it has fallen by 9 per cent
— State spending has almost doubled from 31 per cent in 1960 to 60 per cent in 1980
— Between 1975 and 2000 per capita income rose in the USA by 72 per cent, in Western Europe by 64 per cent and in Sweden by 45 per cent
— Average number of patients seen by a Swedish doctor daily has fallen from nine in 1975 to five in 2006
Source: European Commission; Eurostat, OECD, Swedish Office of National Statistics
Roger Boyes in Malmö