Description: Sacc Speach
Thank you for this opportunity to share some thoughts on today’s Sweden, give some aspects on Sweden and also, at the same time, introduce myself, being a newcomer to New York.
As you may know, I am a newcomer also to the Foreign Service, and I will in advance pray for forgiveness for my shortcomings in this area. Although I have worked and lived in Sweden all my life, I have represented my country in various international arenas, for instance as a member of the G10 deputies to the IMF and as the President of the Board of the Nordic Investment Bank.
When the Swedish government – to my great surprise – asked me and my wife Inger, who is Director General for the Office of the Disability Ombudsman, to come to New York it was because they were looking for someone with broad experience of Swedish society. In this respect, I measured up. For a job that requires a multiple vision I have fortunally, well, a mulitple background.
My professional background includes business – I have had a newsletter company and been a PR consultant – marketing – as president of The Swedish Council for Wider Ownership of Shares and president for The Swedish Newspaper Marketing Company – politics and the government – I was a Member of Parliament and served as State Secretary for Finance an Budget in the most recent non-socialist cabinet. I have also worked as journalist and editor-in-chief.
In recent years I have been a frequent speaker on the subject of the present and future of Sweden. I have usually painted a grim and gloomy picture of the future – and therefore gained a reputation of reliability.
This time, too, I would like talk about the present state of the country and about the future trends.
In my opinion, Sweden is currently in the midst of a formative period, to use a well-worn cliché. Society is undergoing rapid transformation. The old thinking is no longer working, and something new is comming into beeing. What that will be, we don’t know as of yet. As Churchill once said: “The future is imminent, but obscure.”
As was the case at the turn of the century, we are now in a transition period: at the end of one era and the beginning a new and unknown one. “Our century begins and ends in Sarajevo”, the American author Susan Sontag wrote some years ago. It is sad how right she is. Just as a hundred years ago, many today seem to recognize a crisis that has made us more attentive to the long-term trends of society.
This has happened before in Swedish history. Around 1520, the Swedish nobility was beheaded, Sweden broke away from the Danish empire, left the Catholic European community, and developed a central state with an efficient administration – typically, in order to improve tax collection.
In 1718, the death of Charles XII ended both the Swedish era as a Great Power and rule by despotism. This ushered in an era that would produce one of most the democratic constitutions in decades.
Around 1840 liberalism broke through. There followed, in short order, not only new rights for women, free trade, a modern party system, a radical reform of local government – but also the great emigration, to which we owe our excellent relations with important segments of the American society.
Today’s rapid and far-reaching changes both in technology and in our way of thinking make it relevant to speak of and reflect on a new formative period. Sweden is casting about for a new role.
What is happening right now?
I would specifically like to point to four trends or developments.
First of all – greater geographic mobility. Secondly, the erosion of politics. Thirdly, the new role of the media. And, lastly, the globalization of the economy, which has a major impact these days
During the sixties and seventies, millions of Swedes moved from the rural areas to newly constructed suburbs. Here, at the suburban marketplace, they encountered immigrants from southern Europe. People left the industrial areas of Sweden where they had lived in the same places as their parents had, and held the same type of jobs as their fathers. They moved to the suburbs where they either had their dreams of a new job crushed, or found a job that no one had ever heard of ten years earlier.
When they moved from their place of origin they also left old habits behind – such as being an active member of a trade union, always voting for the same party and reading a daily newspaper. The old networks were severed. People became more and more isolated and more and more uncertain how to act. The old channels of communication – newspapers, political parties, trade unions and popular movements – eroded.
At the same time, local municipalities became increasingly centralized. The municipalities were transformed into major service and care producers: old-age care, child-care, maintenance of streets and public buildings, ownership of housing. Local politics was professionalized, while local municipal governments became less and less efficient.
The result today is distrust and discontent with politics and with politicians. In the last election, about two thirds of the electorate stated that they did not trust politicians. This is a tendency all over the world, but perhaps more serious in a country were the public sector controls about 65 percent of the GNP.
A couple of years ago I wrote a book on Swedish politics which I entitled “The Empty Room”. The central room in Sweden – the one inhabited by politicians, business leaders and trade unionists- has been abandoned. There is no one there to guide or govern.
This leads me to what I have called the erosion of politics, its declining importance. I would just want to point out the fact that since 1970 Sweden has not had one single government with a one-party-majority in the Riksdag. Every government has either been a coalition or a minority government. Remember this: The electorate has not in thirty years pointed out a majority governement.
Today there are seven parties in parliament, and people tend to change their allegiance very swiftly. This makes it difficult to form a lasting majority and, especially, to make unpopular decisions, necessary in the long run.
Within the last few years a new element in the electoral system has been introduced, namely the possibility to vote not only for a party, but for a candidate. This new and democratic change for the better is natural at a time when the electorate is less bound by party loyalty. Still it tends to result in political fragmentation.
Not unlike many other European countries, Sweden has been difficult to govern. But this has also laid our political past open to scrutiny. We are now conducting an open and self-critical examination of, for example, Sweden’s role during the Second World War and the politics of neutrality.
Thirdly, we have the new role of the media.
I was at a conference in the Stockholm Archipelago last summer. At every break, all the Swede reached for their cellular telephones. An American professor asked me: – Why don’t you implant those things at birth?
Well, it won’t be long. My youngest son got his first cellphone when he was fourteen. He is now eighteen, and on his sixth. He communicates with his computer from his cellular; which he also uses it as his main telephone. More than every other Swede has his or her own cellular phone. They use it in the subway, in elevators – the coverage is very good everywhere. Most people also have their own personal computer. Surfing on the net is common. A study of how Swedes used the Internet in April of this year, showed that 50 percent of those under 80 used the Internet, mostly for e-mail, but also to read the newspapers. A staggering 22 percent did their banking by Internet.
This is the beginning of a new development where the initiative will pass from the media to the individual, from the newsdesks to the citizens. As TV becomes digitalized, the audience will be able to choose from a myriad of programs from all over the world. They will be able to command their TV sets to provide an in-depth commentary on what is shown on the screen. They will be able to replay or combine programs and services in new ways. We are not there yet – but it won’t be long.
This will transfer the power over information to the citizens – but it will also split the audience. Just a few years ago, TV was not very commercialized in Sweden, and most people received their basic information from the mass media. Now many choose to watch soap operas or talk shows and skip anything serious. This tends to deepen the divisions and segregation in society.
Finally, I turn to the effects of globalization.
In many respects the Swedish economic structure has always been international in scope, or globalized, to use the popular word. A small country with a vital export sector of raw materials such as wood and iron has always been dependent on the world market. Our major industries have always found their primary markets abroad. In this respect, Swedes are globalization veterans.
But today everything is in a state of flux. Raw materials are less essential for the economy. Factories and people are highly mobile. Even smaller and medium-sized companies move easily around the world. A new low-cost production market has developed in the Baltic States, in our immediate vicinity.
The result is fierce competition and increased demands on the ability to adapt quickly. This has not been easy, and in the last twenty years Sweden’s position on the world’s economic ladder has fallen, from second place to about seventeenth. Unemployment, negligible only a few years ago, now stands at about twelve percent – three times as high as in the US.
In many ways, time has caught up with Sweden. The old advantage of an intact industry while a bombed-out Europe was being rebuilt with the aid of the Marshall plan – that advantage is long since gone. The advantages of a functioning infrastructure and a stable labor market are no longer unique.
Sweden is no longer the middle way, and the old Swedish social model is fighting a uphill battle.
Well, this could be summed up as quite a gloomy picture, somewhat contradictory for someone whose job it is to tell the world what is right about Sweden. But with the problems come possibilities. Let me give you some brief examples:
- It is true that politics has lost ground. But at the same time, many more individuals feel that they are on their own and have to take the initiative. Small companies are proliferating rapidly.
- The migration from the rural areas to the suburbs changed the old structure of society. But it also pointed to a willingness to change, to move to new places and to adapt. Sweden is no longer a homogeneous society – this applies equally to the population, views, or culture. On the contrary, we are turning into a diverse and changing society.
- Immigration has caused problems. But it is also opening up Sweden. We are becoming a new generation of Swedes – not always blond and blue-eyed – with international networks and new visions. I went to a party of young Swedes in New York the other night. They were all much younger than I and played music that was much too loud for me. There were about 30 Swedes, most of them under thirty. Most worked within PR, advertising, art, or fashion. They all spoke Swedish. Half of them were black. That is also Sweden. Every fifth Swede today has a mother or a father who was born in another country. That means that a lot of young Swedes have relatives in other countries. The world is their oyster.
- The new media will create new social rifts, but they also make of Sweden an experimenting laboratory for the future. When it comes to the interaction between cellular phones and computers, Sweden is probably the most advanced country in the world. One of the things I want to sell in America is the notion of Sweden as a high-tech society. Forbes recently characterized Sweden as the second best IT-market in the world.
- The new media are also making inroads within art and literature. Art installations are often linked to video, the Internet and computers. Books are being published and sold through the Net.
- More money is being spent on higher education than ever before. It is symbolic of a new era that the new Malmoe University is built on the site of an old shipyard. We no longer build ships, but we have to produce knowledge.
- Globalization creates ever tougher competition. But it also makes it possible for Sweden and Stockholm to become the new economic center in the Baltic area. As it once used to be: The Nobel family made its money in Baku and Russia. My own grandfather was an industrialist who produced separators for Russia and the East. All this came to a halt with the communist take-over in Russia. Now new possibilities are opening up.
So the old kingdom is changing at long last, almost from one day to the next. But its roots still go far back. For such a small country, Sweden is astonishingly avant-garde, both in art and industry. For me, in my new position, the most important task will be to keep Sweden on the map. Art, theater, design, new innovations, Swedish food – everything that helps to make Sweden better known is good. And the aim is to create greater profits and business opportunities for Sweden and Swedish companies. My contribution will obviously be marginal, but if all the Swedes in America, if the various Swedish-American associations, if all the companies doing business with Sweden; if all of us help each other and work together whenever possible, I think that together we can achieve a great deal.