The Humour and the Horror: Why Swedes were Gripped by Britain's Election
2 June 2015
James Savage, Managing Editor, The Local Sweden
The Swedish political and media class are enchanted by British politics - which makes them all the more concerned by the thought that the country might be heading for the EU exit door. The morning after the Conservatives’ outright victory in the general election, it seemed like everyone in Sweden had an opinion.
“Bizarre - a complete surprise” was the reaction of (left-wing) Aftonbladet columnist Wolfgang Hansson.
“Disappointing” was Social Democrat Foreign Minister Margot Wallström’s comment (she later added that she nonetheless congratulated David Cameron). Swedish public service television was criticised by some commentators on the right for allegedly sounding too sympathetic to the Labour Party.
The morning TV shows were dominated by the election - with a level of interest that far exceeded Swedish interest in elections in comparable EU countries such as France, Italy or even Germany. There’s something about Britain’s lively, aggressive political scene that both seduces and appalls Swedes used to a far more sedate and rational form of politics.
Few Swedes would think it sensible to swap their endless technical debates about percentage changes to social security contributions for discussions about the opposition leader’s manner of eating a bacon sandwich.
It’s certainly hard to imagine a leading Swedish politician joke that voting for them “will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3,” as Boris Johnson once did. Yet many can’t help finding the humorous brutality of British political life entertaining.
British politics also has the ability to surprise. The idea that a few hundred voters in a small corner of the country could kick out leading members of the party - as voters did with shadow chancellor (shadow fi nance minister) Ed Balls - is appalling, but also thrilling, for Sweden’s political nerds.
Given the opinion polls, all of which suggested a close race, it’s understandable that some in Sweden were surprised by Cameron’s clear victory. After all, most Brits were surprised too. It’s also understandable that some were incredulous that Britain’s creaking electoral system could deliver an overall majority to a party with just 37 percent of the vote.
Plenty of Swedes found much to cheer in the result. Many on the right of Swedish politics have admired the Conservatives’ handling of the defi cit and have been fl attered by the interest Britain has shown in the Swedish ‘free school’ model. Swedes long used to a more market-oriented healthcare model, in which patients pay strictly limited charges for treatment, are often surprised by how resistant Brits are to similar reforms.
But there was undoubtedly a bigger concern in many of the Swedish reactions - and not just those on the left. The reason: the fear that this will move Britain closer to the EU’s exit door, thanks to David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership.
The worry in Sweden is not simply that a UK exit will weaken the EU, nor is it caused by empathy for the Brits who will find themselves outside. The main fear is that if Britain leaves, Sweden will lose its most important ally in pushing for a freetrading, liberal Europe of nation states.
As Sydsvenskan columnist Tobias Lindberg put it before the election, “it will be tough in the EU without the Brits.” The Swedes and other small EU countries like the Dutch will be no match for more federalist powers like the French and the Germans.
Or as one Social Democrat activist put it to me: “Whoever is in power in London or Stockholm, it’s always the same: on European matters Britain is such an important ally for Sweden.”
The similarities even extend to popular support for the EU. Contrary to what many Swedes (and other Europeans) believe, many more Brits (45 percent) say they would vote to stay in the EU, than would vote to leave (35 percent), according to a YouGov poll in February. This is a remarkably similar figure to the 45 percent of Swedes who told the SOM Institute in 2013 that they were in favour of Swedish membership. In other words, the Brits and Swedes are both a bit keener on the EU than theyare reputed to be.
For those of us for whom the British-Swedish relationship is important, the lead-up to this referendum will be a crunch time. As one of the European countries with which Britain has most in common, politically and culturally, Sweden is in an excellent position to help ensure that Britain stays part of the club.
Let’s hope that Swedish voices are heard loud and clear in the run up to 2017.
James Savage, Managing Editor, The Local Sweden