The Common Weal and the Nordic Model

In Scottish Left Review 85 (Jan/Feb 20105), Philip Stott critiqued the Common Weal (CW), alleging that it stands for a ‘Nordic model’ that, despite having some original aspects, is soft on capitalism and potentially collaborative with big business – and not left-leaning or progressive like the Socialist Party Scotland to which he belongs.

The CW, that antique expression, to me means two things: society as a whole, and the well-being of society; and a body of people and their common good. So it can apply equally to a nation and all humankind. We can aspire to make a better Scottish nation, for its own sake and as an example and a help to other striving nations in the world. Both people and principle are enshrined in this phrase. Nobody goes against the CW.

As for the ‘Nordic model’ – the core source of that idea, and its key interest for us in Scotland, is surely Sweden. Swedish twentieth century experience was that of a resource-poor country (with one exception, iron) with a fragile natural environment and a land and climate unwelcoming to agriculture; and an impoverished, isolated society of a few million people, continually drained by emigration from North to South and to other continents. And yet through the sustained leadership of one (social-democratic) party, it developed one of the richest and most advanced economies in the world.

After 1945, Sweden became not only the locus of essential heavy industry in Scandinavia, but its economic powerhouse – the heartland of high-technology multinationals like IKEA, Electrolux, SAAB and Volvo, which in time were cloned into neighbouring countries. This was also an unusually stable and harmonious society: a clean, well-governed place where well-dressed people went to work (but not too hard) and wandered freely at weekends among the woods and lakes in exercise of their allmänsrätt, or universal right to roam.

Swedish egalitarianism is rooted in the historic memory of countless frozen winters – of families imprisoned with the animals in the byre with little alternative future in view. ‘Vi har det så bra’: people used to admit to me when I lived in Stockholm in the 1980s: ‘We’ve never had it so good.’

That also meant ‘no-one else has it so good’, because from the 1960s onwards, Swedish governments, adopting the internationalism of Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, pioneered the causes of nuclear disarmament, East-West reconciliation and economic development in Africa and Asia. Scandinavian societies, following the Swedish example, continue to exceed four- or five-fold the UN-set level of aid to former-colonial countries (though there was never a Swedish Empire).

But we should also see Sweden in a wider context, both historically and internationally. Swedish neutrality was declared in the eighteenth century when the monarchical regime was a European great power, recently victorious over Russia; it was presented then as a unilaterally-peaceful, quietist position. The international background changed, however, with the Cold War, when Swedish diplomats noted that, like Cuba, their country lay within the immediate death-zone of a superpower nuclear exchange.

Swedish neutrality came to represent national self-interest, as armed neutrality. It meant universal conscription, an ambiguous stance towards liberal-democratic societies in NATO, and a significant home-grown military industry: the dynamism and profits of SAAB and Bofors flowing from the development – and export – of fighter aircraft and guns. Swedish ecologists, pacifists and socialists inspired by the Myrdals fought with the industrial lobby, who argued that Sweden must be strong to stay distinctive; with the nuclear lobby, who insisted that there was no alternative source of reliable bulk energy; with the bosses, who pointed to Bofors and SAAB and said they would support the ruling consensus so long as the unions were part of it and compliant with them.

To a considerable extent these politico-ethical divisions persist today in Sweden, though the value of international neutrality, as in the case of Switzerland, has shrunk drastically since the end of the Cold War and the rise of the EU. Similarly, the Social-Democratic Party has lost its pre-eminence with the built-in preferentialism towards private enterprise progressively instituted in EU member-states.

These parallels for Scotland, and the same EU-related complications (including those which face a dominant social-democratic party), are worth pondering whenever the ‘Nordic model’ is evoked. Philip Stott attacked as incoherent the template for an independent Scotland – the first tentative ‘ideology’ of CW – put together by Robin McAlpine in All of Us First in 2014.

But apart from the fact that his book was a compilation, an attempted fusion of many disparate reports on all aspects of a future independent Scottish society, the ‘Nordic model’ itself, at least in Sweden, was always a compromise between socialism and capitalism, even in its heyday.

Multinational bosses, like the unions, compromised with the leading party. They also, above all others, compromised with the regime of high taxation. (They must have done, or they would have left the country.) Swedes in general, like their counterparts in Switzerland, were compromised by their own official neutrality, since they always counted themselves part of the open, liberal-democratic Western tradition which prevailed in the Cold War.

In Scandinavian society in general, both outside NATO and within it (Norway, Denmark), this ‘model’ held because people understood and worked within these compromises. In addition, I would add, and because of a strong localism, upright political leaders regularly emerged and maintained their integrity. Perhaps, the most valuable impression (certainly on my mind) of modern Scandinavia is one of societies without political corruption.

CW, it seems to me, is another kind of compromise: one forged in the name of a better future, which is opened up by the prospect of Scottish independence. ‘We can have a more ethical country,’ said Isobel Lindsay in the run-up to last year’s referendum. A consensus of hope brings together, in CW, members from the left and right of the SNP, Greens, feminists, trade unionists, and socialists but members of no party (like myself). In this way, it mirrors the independence movement as a whole since the start of the referendum campaign, which has been generally non-sectarian, co-operative, a forum for mutual instruction – which in itself suggests some principle for a post-independence parliament at Holyrood.

The ‘Nordic model’ provides both positive and negative lessons for Scottish society. Now, together with Scandinavians, we face the challenge of reforming European society, where capitalism has become favoured, through the laws and institutions of the EU, in a more insidious and tenacious way than ever before. Beyond that we face the challenge of improving the lot of all our fellow human beings. That is how I view the prospect of Scottish independence. Scottish nationalists must be internationalists too. The CW is the weal of the world as a whole.

Peter Lomas was a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 1984-1987