Sweden is to the 21st-century right what the Soviet Union was to the 20th-century left. Conservatives have transformed it into a Tory Disneyland where every dream comes true. On the shores of the Baltic lies a country that has no need to curtail civil liberties and wreck the economy to curb Covid-19. “I have a dream, a fantasy,” sang Abba. “To help me through reality.” For much of the right, that fantasy is called Sweden.
Let the leader of the Conservative backbenchers stand for the Tory press and innumerable ideologues inside and outside Westminster. Sir Graham Brady ruined a perfectly good argument that parliament must have the power to scrutinise Johnson’s emergency decrees by announcing that there was no emergency. We could look to a country that merely had a ban on gatherings of more than 50, restrictions on visiting care homes, a shift to table-only service in bars and see that “Sweden today is in a better place than the United Kingdom”. Or as the Sun explained on Thursday as Boris Johnson met Anders Tegnell, the Swedish public health “mastermind”, a do-little strategy has spared Sweden a second wave of Covid-19 infections.
It’s not true that Sweden offers an escape from the public health catastrophe. I only wish it did. But, and this is when conservative commentators, politicians and conspiracy theorists look away, Sweden offers an escape from the social catastrophe now engulfing us.
You never hear the Telegraph or the Mail say that we need Swedish levels of sickness benefit to ensure that carriers stay at home and quarantine. Or Swedish levels of housing benefit to ensure that they aren’t evicted from those same homes. The knights of the suburbs do not insist that the hundreds of thousands who will be thrown on the dole in the coming months need Swedish levels of unemployment benefit and an interventionist Scandinavian state to retrain them.
Covid-19 is exposing the lack of social solidarity in Britain. For a moment when the virus hit we stood together. We locked down voluntarily and applauded the NHS. Millions of people, and not only Conservative voters, were prepared to overlook the dismal truth that we had a comedy prime minister who was tragically unequipped to lead a country in a crisis. The symbolic moment of disintegration historians will remember was Johnson’s refusal to sack Dominic Cummings when he broke the rules everyone else believed they had a patriotic duty to obey. But all around us there have been hundreds of thousands of quiet disintegrations as lives were lost and families were forced to beg at food banks. Soon, millions of lives will disintegrate as government support is slashed.
You have to be over 40 to understand the peculiar evil of mass unemployment. I was one of the unemployed of the Thatcher years and learned that behind the jargon about “social capital” and “scarring” is a concept that is easier to grasp: your confidence is shot to pieces. The longer you are out of work, the more insecure you become and the harder it becomes for you to convince anyone to employ you. A job can move faster than the comfortable imagine possible from something you can’t get to something you can’t do. Benefits are a commitment to social solidarity because they are not just protections against hunger, homelessness and want, but because they reflect a society’s willingness to work with you as you struggle to hold yourself together.
Take two people: one living in Malmö, the other in Manchester. When a Swede loses his or her job they are entitled to up to 80% of their previous salary for the first 200 days of inactivity – up to 910 krona (£78) a day for the first 100 days – dropping to 70% (to a maximum of 760 krona a day) for the next 100 days. Danes who are members of unemployment insurance funds can claim up to 90%. As importantly, Sweden is “the best place in the world to lose your job” because employers pay a levy to job security councils whose coaches seek you out and match your skills and ambitions with the market.
Rishi Sunak says there is no point in subsidising many of the pre-Covid-19 jobs in the high street and hospitality because they are not coming back. But, like the Tories of the 1980s, he is not offering retraining to prepare the unemployed for the jobs of the future. Once again, unemployment is the responsibility of the unemployed, even though it’s a stretch to see how they are responsible for a virus jumping species in Wuhan.
As for keeping 80% or indeed 90% of their income, the Resolution Foundation pointed out that under Sunak’s plans a single adult homeowner earning £20,000 a year who loses their job also loses more than 70% of their net income. Worse is to come. At the start of the pandemic, Sunak increased tax credits and universal credit by £20 a week (£1,040 a year). As things stand, he is preparing to risk mass suffering by withdrawing the rise at the end of March.
The fantasy land of Sweden where sickness never comes is a fairytale. By not locking down in the spring, Sweden had a more protracted outbreak with far more deaths per capita than its neighbours. Admittedly, its death rate was not as bad as Britain’s. But then no European country had a death rate as bad as Britain’s because no other European country put the village idiot in charge. Nor did the “mastermind” Tegnell save the Swedish economy. Spending fell by nearly as much in Sweden, which did not lock down, as in Denmark, which did. As for the claim that Sweden would avoid a second wave, Swedish health officials are now proposing local lockdowns of a type we know too well. Sweden may not have been spared the storm but it has lessons on how to shelter society until the storm passes. However deeply it claims to love Scandinavia, the Conservative party is the last organisation on Earth willing to learn from it.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist