Sweden’s shift to the right took decades

“I can understand the shock in Sweden after the electoral breakthrough of the Swedish Democrats.” I wrote that in the Swedish paper Expressen, not in response to today’s elections, but in 2010, when the far-right party first entered parliament, gaining 5.7% of the votes and 20 seats.

The shock, I wrote, arose in part from Sweden’s sense of itself “as different from other European nations, as open, tolerant and progressive”. But it is “in this very view of Sweden as exceptional that much of the problem lies”. That is as true now as it was then. The Sweden Democrats are expected to gain perhaps 20% of the vote. It’s led to an even greater bout of soul-searching at home and astonishment abroad.

There are certainly distinct aspects of the Sweden story. The Social Democrats have been embedded in government to a greater degree than elsewhere, as has an attachment to egalitarianism. But that began to erode in the 1980s, just as it did throughout Europe. Sweden remains a more equal country than most. Yet the rise in inequality over the past 15 years has been the steepest of all OECD nations.

The biggest losers have been the Social Democrats. Between the 1930s and the 1980s, they consistently took more than 45% of the vote. Now they are predicted to receive around 25%.

The biggest winners are the Sweden Democrats. The neo-Nazi party of street thugs in the 1990s has rebranded itself as anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-EU. Immigration has become, as it has elsewhere, symbolic of unacceptable change. Sweden has certainly taken in more refugees per capita recently than most European nations but tough restrictions on economic migration have been in place since the 1970s. The real shift is that as the language of class has declined, so that of cultural and racial identity has become more prominent.

In response, the mainstream has vacillated between demonising the far right and pandering to its prejudices. That, too, is little different from elsewhere.