First of all, I might as well admit that I haven’t listened to any episodes of Radio 24Syv’s series “Danmarks Röst” – a programme hosted by Mikael Jalving. Jalving is fairly big on the Danish right, in particular that part which focuses on anti-immigration and anti-islamic politics and convinced that European societies are under a mortal threat from Muslims, multiculturalism and political correctness. You will recognise the stance from parties like PVV in the Netherlands, Front National in France and of course the Republican right in the US. But Jalving is also part of what we might now call a Danish tradition of obsessing with Swedish policies – seeing them as an expression of multicultural political correctness which – surprise, surprise – will somehow lead to the creation of some kind of Muslim controlled polity. My question is this: Given that Denmark and Sweden in many ways are so similar, then why this obsession with Sweden?
One place to begin could be with the observation that Sweden appears almost non-existent in contemporary left-wing political discourse. If we go back to the 1960s and 1970s, things were different as Sweden in many ways was a model for the modern Social Democratic welfare state. The left-wing would also see neutral Sweden with its links to the Third World movement as an inspiration in international politics. But these days, the interest for Swedish politics appear nonexistent. If anything, the Social Democrats take their cues from what is still left of the Blairite tendency in the UK Labour Party and Clintonian triangulation combined with EU economic orthodoxy which has nothing to do with traditional Social Democratic welfare politics. It is also difficult to see SF and the Red-Green Alliance using contacts with their Swedish counterparts actively.
One reason for this could be that Sweden has in fact had a centre-right government for the past eight years. In fact, since 1976 Sweden has had centre-right governments for 17 out of 38 years and in many ways contemporary Sweden is one of the most market-liberal (or deregulated, if you prefer that term) societies not just in Europe but in the Western world. This may come as a complete surprise if you listen to the Danish right-wing debate.
We can also note that even if the days of Social Democratic hegemony are long gone – the Social Democrats have still to discover this but that is another matter – Swedish politics is still characterised by the dominance of the socio-economic left-right dimension both with regard to the political agenda and the composition of the electorates of the political parties.
Here, we have a huge difference between Sweden and Denmark: The Danish Liberals – and the Danish People’s Party – won the 2001 election by attracting blue-collar voters while the Swedish Conservatives won the 2006 election by attracting urban white-collar middle-class voters. And the question about East and Central European workers’ access to the Swedish labour market had already been solved when the Green Party joined the centre-right parties and voted against the Social Democrats’ proposal to impose limits for migrant workers. Despite the attempts of the Liberal Party in the 2002 election, immigration policy never acquired the same salience in the Swedish political mainstream as in Danish politics.
The exception which sort of proves the rule is presented by the Sweden Democrats which have quite successfully tapped into the traditional protest vote constituency of younger non-urban, male voters with no or limited formal education in the 2010 national and 2014 European Parliament election. Anti-immigrant sentiment is one major factor explaining the Sweden Democrats’ success but we should not forget that Sweden Democrat voters are also characterised by a high level of distrust in the established political system. At the same time, the centre-right has preferred not to rely on the Sweden Democrats as a supporting party during the 2010-2014 parliamentary term even though the four-party Alliance lost its parliamentary majority in 2010. In many ways the Sweden Democrats are the point of identification for the Danish right-wing debate, but it does strike me as rather odd to make a party which is in the 5-10% range the Voice of the True Sweden – while the general Swedish opinion is becoming less, rather than more negative towards immigrants. More likely, the Sweden Democrats serve as a projection of the Danish right-wing debate.
Here, we should also note that a liberal immigration policy can be linked with both a leftist, multiculturalist position and a politically and economically liberal position. In my opinion, this – and the marked absence of a nationalist conservative position (like the one promoted by the Danish Liberals and the Danish Social Democratic mainstream) outside of the ranks of the Sweden Democrats – has led to a fundamental difference between Sweden and Denmark. In many ways, Danish politics has been dominated by a nationalist conservative hegemony in the 21st century with Social Democrats playing a game of catching-up. At the same time, Swedish governments have been more radical in introducing market-based (or neo-liberal) reforms of the welfare states than most other West European countries including Denmark. Sweden, curiously, appears to be to the right of Denmark on the socio-economic dimension even if the previous Liberal-Conservative governments and the present Social Democratic-Social Liberal government have adhered to the austerian economic policies promoted by the EU.
Finally, there is the question of “political correctness” and its role in politics. Based on impressions, I would say that Swedish political discourse for better or for worse with regard to issues like immigration and gender is more cautious than the Danish. Here, my guess is that one explanation is that Swedish politics has traditionally taken US progressive politics as its point of departure for much of the past 80 years. “Political correctness” – which in many ways is based on a desire to break with racist and patriarchical traditions in US society and politics – is linked with a specific liberal conception of modernity and this conception was embraced wholeheartedly – albeit successively by different parties – by the political mainstream in Sweden from the 1930s onward. In this way, it fits the Swedish mindset better than the Danish, given that Denmark in many ways was dragged kicking and screaming into the post-war industrial and service economy and society. “Islamization” – the explanation for just about everything in Danish right-wing politics – has nothing to do with it. (Incidentally, Danish right-wingers appear to take their cues from US right-wing think tanks and politics)
Obviously, things are a bit more complicated: The differences between Danish and Swedish immigration and integration policies are smaller than the numbers could lead us to believe. In many ways Denmark and Sweden face the same problems and have chosen the same policies to deal with integration once people have settled in one of the two countries. Multiculturalism also straddles a very complicated cleavage between individualism and the politics of group identity – and group identity politics are not necessarily as progressive as multiculturalists would like to imagine.
We also have to consider differences in the interplay between feminist movements and the state: Denmark was in fact a frontrunner with regard to women’s movements and gender equality during the 1970s but as the feminist movement always kept a distance to the state, gender equality more or less disappeared from the political agenda as 1970s radicalism ran out of steam. Swedish feminists on the other hand created close ties with the political and administrative establishment and in this way kept the issue alive. In fact, the ability of popular movements to infiltrate the political and administrative apparatus has been one important characteristic of Swedish politics since the 1920s. Systembolaget – that perennial object of Danish ridicule – was born out of the teetotalers’ movement, not a state dictate.
So, to sum up: While Sweden and Denmark are quite similar in many respects, Sweden is if fact different from Denmark on a number of important characteristics. While Danish politics for the past two decades have been characterised by centrist economic policies and conservative social (or “value”) policies, Swedish politics have been decided on the socio-economic dimension with market liberalism and individualism as the dominant forces. While Danish society (and politics) continues to have a significant conservative and anti-modern element built into it, Swedish society and politics have embraced modernism and post-industrialism. And finally, while popular movements have kept their distance to the Danish state and formal political system, Swedish movements have worked actively to gain and keep access to the inner corridors of power, but Danes simply do not understand how the Swedish system works and assume that some kind of top-down suppression of popular sentiment is at play.
All of this isn’t to say that Swedish society and politics are without problems or contradictions but from a Danish point of view Sweden is at the same time similar enough and different enough to serve as an object of projection.