I have a great fondness for empty, snowy mountains, and a deep keenness to go and see the Northern Lights for myself. I’ve become properly hooked on Scandinavian dramas (Borgen is the least of it – The Killing, The Bridge, the Millenium Trilogy, and I think the best one so far, Headhunters). I also work in politics, and so like everyone else I’ve been fascinated by the way that the Scandinavian economies have reformed their public services.
The Economist notes that “Sweden has reduced public spending as a proportion of GDP from 67 per cent in 1993 to 49 per cent today.” In itself that is an extraordinary achievement but perhaps more so because in 1992, it was effectively insolvent. This article from the New York Times (1998) is illuminating on the actions taken then but the Economist also adds two important points.
The first is that Sweden’s traditional high spending on public services was sort of sustainable while their local industries were making a lot of money. In a globalised, moveable and competitive era, those companies were forced to be leaner and more competitive. Secondly, the big-state model depended on people’s willingness to be told what to do and being satisfied with one (admittedly generous) size fits all provision.
Those two drivers (or three if you include the unaffordability) are now present in other economies. Perhaps even more so because in 1993, most people weren’t able to access the extraordinary choice available to us all at the click of a mouse today. I’ve written before about the need for politics to catch up with consumer behaviour (and that’s Douglas Carswell’s starting point in iDemocracy as well), but maybe more important is that concept of what public services are there to do. They are there to serve the public who pay for them.
There’s also of course an added pressure in the UK (and very possibly elsewhere as well but I don’t know) which is that we as a nation have lost so much trust in the institutions which we thought we could count on. MPs, the police, the NHS, the media, supermarkets, banks… The list goes on. Yet there’s also something quite interesting in the innards of such polling – people tend to mistrust the institution itself, or the broad mass of for example MPs, yet very often you’ll find that they say their local MP, hospital, or whatever, is an exception and is good.
So the challenge to those big faceless institutions must be: how do you translate that trust in local and visible outlets into something meaningful on a bigger scale ? And surely the only rational answer is to actually deliver on localism, mutuals and the Big Society…
Update: I wrote this on Tuesday morning, and the Legatum Institute held a discussion on this very topic on Wednesday evening which you can watch here.