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Dr Tim Bale: Lessons from Sweden

Tim Bale returned to the UK in 2003 after five years working in New Zealand in order to teach politics at Sussex University.  He specialises in British and comparative party politics.

Because of the linguistic, cultural and media ties we share with the US, and with countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand, people in British politics tend to take their shining examples - or their dire warnings - from those countries rather than places closer to home.  Conservatives, for obvious reasons, are arguably particularly prone to learn their lessons from that small Anglo-Saxon sample rather than from fellow European countries.

That’s a pity because the continentals, even those that labour under the PR systems that are obviously anathema to most Tories, can sometimes teach us a thing or two.

For instance, how can an ailing centre-right make it back into power even against a centre-left that appears to doing most things right as far as voters are (or are supposed to be) concerned, namely running a reasonable economy and demonstrating general (if not total) competence in other areas of government?

Sweden is clearly a case in point in this respect.  Notwithstanding the fact that unemployment in the country is probably higher than official figures suggest, the Social Democratic government that lost power at the weekend was hardly a disaster: multiculturalism and migration issues may have been bubbling under, but growth was good, the welfare system nowhere near meltdown and there were no great signs of a tax revolt among a population whose middle classes pay a lot but also get a lot in return.

And yet, the centre-right coalition led by a resurgent conservative party - the ‘new’ (note) Moderates - has edged out the hegemon and its flank parties, the Greens and the Left.  And it has done it by getting out of the clear blue water, towelling itself off and dressing in far more centrist garb.  Voters - many of whom work in or depend on public services, as well as in or on Sweden’s highly successful private export sector - have been reassured that those services are safe in the right’s hands.  The key to a more dynamic society is not wholesale tax and welfare cuts, its message went, but extending labour market flexibility (without - and this will be the difficult bit - sacrificing security and good benefits).

But the lessons don’t and shouldn’t end with the idea that victory lies in appealing to the centre and leaving the fringes to look after themselves - an example borrowed, by the way, directly from Denmark.

Anyone interested in the long-term future of Conservatism in Britain would do well to keep a close eye on what happens next because that’s where the potential parallels get most interesting.  Many Tories are prepared to put up with David Cameron’s makeover because they see it as precisely that - a change on the outside that won’t really affect what’s going on underneath.  When and if the Tories make it into Number Ten, the belief runs, they will revert to type and all manner of things shall be well: spending shaved, taxes down, the US cuddled up to, etc., etc.  Some members of their Swedish counterpart will hope for the same thing - and perhaps they are right.

If they are, then Sweden will provide a fascinating controlled experiment for what happens when a refitted and retooled right takes office on a centrist manifesto but then serves up voters with what many of them will regard as a nasty surprise.  If they are wrong, and the new government sticks to its centrist line, then more than a few Tories are going to have to decide whether they really are up for a project that may be about a genuine, rather than a superficial, primarily election-driven, change of direction.


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