Scandinavia, or the Nordic countries if you want to include Finland and Iceland, does seem a bit of a marvel. To Labour supporters of my generation it was our ‘shining city on the hill’: an example of what democratic socialism could be like without lapsing into Soviet tyranny. Among the political Right it was either regarded as an embarrassment, suggesting that there was in fact ‘an alternative’ to liberal capitalism, or dismissed as an illusion, a city built on sand, which would be bound to topple soon, and was probably less shining even then than it was presented. (Surely people must be groaning under all that taxation?) At first I feared that this book might be a sop to the latter group – the words ‘the truth about’ in the subtitle seemed ominous – but I needn’t have worried so much. Michael Booth has some conventional right-of-centre views about the Nordic welfare model: its unsustainability, its stifling impact on work and enterprise, its uniformity and its sheer dullness, as he sees it. But in the end he concludes that, for those ‘looking for an alternative to the rampant capitalism that has ravaged our economies’ in recent years, ‘the Nordic countries have the answer’. This comes as a bit of a surprise after the strong criticisms expressed in the rest of the book. The Danish chapters are really quite excoriating, and it puzzled me that the original Danish edition, as the publisher tells us, received five-star reviews – until I reached the chapters on Sweden, which are even less complimentary. The Danes will accept any amount of punishment, it seems, if the Swedes are beaten harder.
Booth starts with Denmark because he lives there – his wife is Danish and their children study at Danish schools. That gives him an insight into the country that doesn’t quite extend to the others, which he has merely visited and researched, his views of them perhaps coloured by his experiences of Denmark. (I would have the same problem. I live in Sweden; when I visit the other Nordic countries I see them through
Swedish eyes, and behind them British ones.) He is at pains to point out how different they all are, and how scathing each nation is of the others. I can vouch for that. You should hear my partner on the Danes. She’s going to love some of the ammunition provided here. Can it really be true that ‘seven per cent of Danish men have had sex with an animal’? (Not the same one, surely.)
One of the major problems with this book is that it provides no sources or references, so we can’t rely on everything Booth writes. Much of it is impressionistic, and I have to say that many of its impressions of the Swedes don’t accord with mine. On the other hand, Booth is absolutely right to be angry about Sweden’s record in the Second World War, which still ought to be a source of shame to Swedes, but which most of them seem blithely unaware of. This may be one of the things that fuels the arrogance that their neighbours detect in them. In Finland, which Sweden refused to help in its Winter War of 1939–40 against the Soviets, it is also apparently seen as evidence of Swedish men’s ‘gayness’ – that and the hairnets that were ordered for the Swedish military in the 1960s, when long hair was fashionable. (Booth is good on Finnish ‘macho’ culture.)
It was Sweden’s ‘neutrality’ during the war that laid the base for her economic prosperity afterwards, though most Swedes themselves – and their British admirers – prefer to attribute it to their ‘consensual’ political and economic model. Along with their social egalitarianism, especially with regard to the sexes, the model is something that all the Nordic countries share. Even in ‘macho’ Finland, with its ‘wife-carrying competitions’ and the rest, half its politicians, 60 per cent of its graduates and a large proportion of its CEOs are women. At the root of this undoubtedly lies Scandinavia’s generous parental leave and childcare systems, which enable parental tasks to be shared and consequently liberate women to fulfil themselves in other ways if they want. (Booth worries about the ‘feminist’ pressures on them to go out to work even if they would prefer not to.) The trade unions are powerful but also cooperate with owners, an example that Harold Wilson’s government saw as the solution to Britain’s economic ills, until the unions scuppered it. Booth spends a lot of time trying to get to the bottom of this ‘consensus’ culture in Scandinavia, producing a number of ingenious theories, most of them historical: the Viking inheritance, ethnic homogeneity (until recently), the lack of a proper feudal system in the Middle Ages, Denmark’s reduction from great power to rump of a nation by the 19th century and so on. My Scandinavian friends, on the other hand, think this is a ‘natural’ state of affairs. They would turn the question around: why are the Anglo-Saxon nations so competitive? (It took a long time for my partner to come round to the view that the Swedish way wasn’t the default position for any society.)
All travel books, or books about foreign countries, say at least as much about where their authors are coming from as about where they are going. Of course this doesn’t make them any less valuable, even to the people they describe: ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us’, as Robert Burns put it. The Almost Nearly Perfect People must tell the Scandinavians a lot about themselves that they might not have noticed, because they haven’t been asking Booth’s questions, and will serve as a stimulating introduction to the region for foreigners. If its general bias is obvious, and a bit Anglo-Saxon, it also rehearses the arguments against it – usually from academics Booth has interviewed in the Nordic countries – very fairly. He covers most of the topics you would expect, including Sweden’s political assassinations, the Icelandic banking collapse, the Utøya massacre, the Muhammad cartoons, immigration and the Far Right. It is weak on culture, but then Booth thinks the welfare state is detrimental to high art. (He admits to one of his interviewees that this makes him a ‘typical British snob’.) It is also a thoroughly entertaining read, written brilliantly and with a number of good jokes. Maybe that’s why the Danes liked it so much. They have a more robust sense of humour than the other Nordics.