3. Dec, 2020


In every country I have worked or lived in, I have always tried to study the culture, to understand and assimilate as much of it as I can. I have never understood someone having the opportunity to move to Prague (just an example) and then spending their whole time there searching for British shops and restaurants. And that in a city central to so much of European history :)

I find the same in Sweden. There is a Facebook group for British residents in Sweden which is very useful for many practical matters, but which drives me mad more often than not. There is a large group who seem to spend their whole time complaining about this country and its natives, and comparing them unfavourably to the UK. The ironic thing is that many of them came to Sweden because of Brexit.

But it got me to thinking about why I prefer living here to in the UK {leaving aside my wife and the beauty of the countryside). Certainly Sweden is not perfect, but then I don't believe any country or society is. So let's start by listing some of the things that do stand out at first as odd to newcomers coming to live here. Some are different, others are annoying, most you get used to once you understand them. And some are really good.

I suppose the first and most important difference for Brits is that here you need a personal number to make life work in almost every way. You cannot even open a bank account without one. Nor buy a car. Nor have an internet or phone account, or any sort of credit agreement. Most important, you cannot interact with any government agency without a personal number. Health, social services, immigration, police, and of course the tax authorities (who actually issue the personal number, though the police issue your ID card.)

I find the seemingly constant debate over ID cards in the UK puzzling; I certainly don't find carrying an ID card an imposition or a threat to my civil liberty. To me it's simple - it works! The whole personal number system makes life simpler, and more co-ordinated. Life is easier.

The second thing that most British immigrants seem to notice (complain about) is "everything is so expensive". Yes, the cost of living is higher here than in the UK, especially food and alcohol. Food's more expensive because it carries VAT (called MOMS) of 25%; alcohol because off licence sales are still a state monopoly through a chain of stores called System Bolaget. But what gets interesting for me is that the cost of living and the high overall tax levels are not a major political issue, unlike in the UK. I think the reason is very simple really - people here realise that this is a welfare state that actually delivers services not just promises them, and that such services have to be paid for. So health is basically free, and all education up to and including university is totally free. Minimum wages are realistic, unemployment benefits adequate if not generous, and parental leave is a guaranteed right for both parents. It seems to me that people will accept high taxes if they can see the return on them.

I am not going to pretend that everything is perfect in Swedish society. It isn't.

Immigration has become a political issue since it was handled so badly in 2015, and has led to the rise of a populist nationalist party called the Swedish Democrats, and some increasingly ghetto-like suburbs in the three big cities of Stockholm, Gothenberg and Malmo.

In a low crime society levels have been  creeping up, but remain at a comparatively low level both historically and internationally. What has changed is the methods used by violent criminals, with an increasing tendency towards guns and explosions. This is a result mostly of organised crime in the big cities, mostly from  gang warfare between gangs ranging from neo Nazi motorbikers to Balkan immigrants.

The bureaucracy in the public sector can drive you nuts. It's probably the overcomplications of the public sector that led the Swedes to create Ombudsmen in the first place :)

However, for me the worst thing about Swedish society is a sort of smugness, a feeling that Swedes are better than other nationalities. While the more modern , internationalist, younger Swedes can acknowledge and laugh at this trait, in older folk particularly, it has led to what is really an unconscious but incipient racism that creeps into employment. It's much harder for 'new Swedes' to get a job than for Swedes born in the country and living here for generations. Quite often it's not what you know, but whom you know.

I could easily catalogue more faults with Swedish society; like all countries it has challenges it has to adapt to in this rapidly changing world. But with all of that said, Sweden - warts and all - is still a liberal democracy where government is relatively open and responsible to the electorate, where rampant capitalism is checked by social legislation and strong unions. Entrepreneurism is encouraged, but the State does provide an adequate safety net. Personal space is respected but most neighbours would help if you needed help. Perhaps what I appreciate most is that it is not a society divided into camps like 'Remainer' and 'Leaver' that don't seem to believe in rational debate but more and more in open hatred.

You won't find many extremes in Swedish society, and for that I am actually grateful, since left/right debates have become so poisonous in so many other countries. I live in a centre left social democracy which, for all its faults, still believes in the values of a society caring for all its citizens. And for that i am grateful.