During his time as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn was often referred to by his allies as a ‘Scandinavian social democrat’. That an old-school socialist could be talked about like this demonstrates how little even the politically engaged within the UK understood about how things operate in Norway, Sweden and Denmark – and how much the reality of how things are done in these countries varies from the way the British left imagines them. The UK is not alone in this regard; doing things the “Scandinavian way” is a fall-back for the left throughout the world. It is held up as a model for how to run a left-leaning economy and society – and yet most of it is widely misunderstood by those who don’t live in the region.
Even talking about it as a ‘model’ is somewhat misleading, as if the whole thing was a formal idea that was put into practice after years of theorising, instead of how things happened to evolve in a certain part of the world over time. Most of the way things work in Scandinavia that we would like to emulate came about through trial and error. However, there is enough commonality in the way things are done across all three of the Scandinavian countries to discuss parts of it as a package.
In this post, I will cover three areas of key interest for how the ‘Scandinavian model’ works: governance, health care and trade unionism. I will stress here that there are many more areas of the ‘Scandinavian model’, but these were picked as they stand out from the way other social democracies operate. I will discuss them in the abstract as well as comparing them to the way similar competences are covered in the UK.
Decentralisation of power
The United Kingdom is one of the most centralised countries in the western world. This is true even after considering the devolved parliaments. Local government in the UK handles very little in terms of competencies and collects none of its own money, relying instead on funds from Westminster being doled out to them. By contrast, a big part of what makes the ‘Scandinavian model’ work is the structure of the governance in the three countries and the fact that they are much more politically devolved.
Norwegian local government covers a great deal of policy. County councils handle culture and heritage, economic planning, infrastructure, public transport, regional and business development, secondary schools, and some environmental issues. Municipal councils, the tier of governance below county councils, cover agricultural policy, environment, maritime policy, planning, primary schools, primary healthcare and social care, roads, sanitation, social services, and water. Education until post-secondary level, agricultural and environmental policy and healthcare are just some of the huge areas covered below national government level in Norway. In fact, at national level, the Norwegian government handles defence and foreign policy, employment, some environmental policy, oversight of macro health and social care policy, higher education, immigration, national road and railway networks, police, justice and prisons, and of course, taxation and National Insurance. It is a remarkably devolved mode of governance compared to the UK.
Sweden is even more devolved. County councils and municipalities gather 81% of their funds themselves and between them handle civil defence, cleaning and waste management, emergency services, environmental and health protection, housing, libraries, all education policy up to post-secondary, planning and construction issues, social care for elderly and disabled people, water and sewerage, budgets and tax rates, economic operations, health care, regional growth, allocation of EU Structural Funds, and public transport.
If the UK wanted to adopt anything like the Scandinavian model, massive devolution would be required, down to a municipal level in many instances. This would represent massive change from the way the UK functions at present; it would also be a huge challenge to the centralising instincts of many parts of the British left. In addition, this restructuring of governance in the UK could be difficult, expensive and time-consuming to set up and would not be without disruption. Yet it is an essential part of what makes the ‘Scandinavian model’ what it is, and an example of social democracy in action.
Denmark has universal health care, provided free at the point of use for all residents. UK citizens get the same thing – but that’s where the comparisons end. Whereas in the United Kingdom we have the centralised NHS, funded and provided completely by the national government, the Danish health care system is extremely decentralised, with a lot of interaction between different levels of government in the provision of healthcare to Danish residents.
There is also a lot more private business involved in healthcare in Denmark. Private and public healthcare is extremely integrated in Denmark in a way that would seem foreign in the UK, where there is a clear divide between healthcare that is provided by the NHS and care given through a private enterprise. 42% of Danes have some form of private medical insurance, which provides them with many things that aren’t covered by the state system alone.
Healthcare in Sweden is for the most part entirely decentralised as well. The fears some in the UK might have about such a system being put in place here about ‘postcode lotteries’ have not been borne out by the Swedish experience: while there is regional variation, a lot of it can be explained by demographics or socio-economic factors.
Changing the healthcare system in order to better provide care is so much less of a divisive political issue in Scandinavia as compared to the UK, at least in part because it is so decentralised. Scandinavian politicians cannot rally around saving a centralised healthcare service where one does not exist. This allows a great deal of innovation to emerge in how to make healthcare better. To implement this way of providing healthcare in the UK would be massively challenging and one has to wonder whether it would even be possible to decentralise the NHS, with more locally based providers, even with the promise of universal provision being continued. In other words, even if you could work out a practical way to re-order the British healthcare system in a more Scandinavian way, the political issues may be insurmountable.
Around 70% of the working population of Sweden are trade union members - the comparable number for the UK is 23%. Added to this, the Swedish trade union figures have been relatively stable for the past decade, whereas in the UK, membership has declined and the unmistakable trend appears to be a continuation downward. There are about half as many people who are members of a trade union in the UK as compared to 1980, despite the fact that the working population has grown by around 20% since then. The large numbers of unionised workers appears to be part of the wider Scandinavian model as well: around 70% of Danes are unionised, and the figure in Norway is over 50%.
These higher union figures result in a positive feedback loop: more members means more money for the union, more power in terms of numbers, as well as the union adopting a political stance that is more neutral due to the membership being made up from a wider segment of society, all of this leading to more members joining. In Scandinavia, being part of a union is seen as a form of job/wage insurance as opposed to the joining of a political movement. The image of a union boss in Scandinavia isn’t a man holding a bullhorn; it’s someone in a sharp suit, going into a meeting with an employer to emerge with a better deal for their members.
In addition to this, there are a high-number of white-collar workers who are in trade unions in Sweden – over two million of them, in a country with a total population of 10 million. In fact, the proportion of white-collar workers who are unionised is roughly the same as the proportion of blue-collar workers who are in a trade union in Sweden. This is in sharp contrast to most of the rest of Europe, and particularly the UK, where unions tend to mostly be the preserve of blue-collar workers. Again, this has a huge effect on the culture of the unions, making them more universal in outlook and less politically charged. It seems inconceivable for even a Labour-led government to revive and reimagine unions in such a way that might get us closer to the Scandinavian approach, particularly given the mood music of public sector and rail strikes in recent months.
The most important thing to understand about the ‘Scandinavian model’ is that it is explicitly socially democrat, not socialist. The way things operate in Norway, Sweden and Denmark have been described as ‘socialistic’ by some on the western left; in other words, something that operates far down the left on a spectrum that runs from extreme libertarianism to the Soviet Union, but this is a false way of looking at it. Unfortunately, this way of thinking often obscures the best of what Scandinavian models of governance and policy have to offer other countries, with parts of the left wanting to push further with centralisation and the right scared to touch anything that might be confused with socialism.
It is by rejecting the premise that capitalism is inherently bad that the Scandinavian model can exist. It instead takes the continuation of capitalism as a given and works out from there what parts of the economy work best freed from market incentives and/or restraints, and further, which need some collusion with public funding/oversight. This is how you end up with a decentralised healthcare system with lots of private sector input, or how you arrive at a society where more than half of working people are in a trade union. You stop trying to battle capitalism out of existence and instead seek to make it work a lot better, for everyone in society from the richest to the poorest.
It also should be stressed that taking the UK or Belgium and making them run exactly like Sweden or Norway is probably not possible, even taking the political factors discussed already into account. Some of the way things work in Scandinavia are undoubtably cultural as much as anything else; and as mentioned in the opening, it’s only a model in the loosest sense anyhow, mostly having come together via trial and error over many decades.
Even putting this final consideration aside, there is a lot for the western left outside of Scandinavia to learn from how things are done in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (there is much for the western right to learn as well, but that’s opening a huge subject for which another paper at least would be required). The first of which is that instead of pursuing socialism, which will always have huge political pushback and hasn’t been shown to have worked anywhere in the world particularly effectively yet, the western left should return to the idea of social democracy as a centralising, ideological principle. In other words, I don’t think the western left can destroy capitalism – nor should it seek to do so – but it can make it a whole lot better. Sweden, Norway and Demark have at least partially laid out the course already.