Anna Lindh

Inspirational, un-spun politician

Anna Maria Lindh, politician: born Stockholm 19 June 1957; member of the Swedish parliament 1982-2003; Minister for the Environment 1994-98; Minister for Foreign Affairs 1998-2003; married 1991 Bo Holmberg (two sons); died Stockholm 11 September 2003.

Anna Lindh, the Swedish Foreign Minister who died yesterday after a savage knife attack in a Stockholm department store, owns a place in history alongside legendary Swedish figures who marked international politics and diplomacy.

But, at the time of their deaths, her predecessors were mature political figures: Dag Hammarskjöld, who died while in the service of the United Nations; Raoul Wallenberg, who saved Jews in Budapest but died in Soviet hands; and Olof Palme, who proved that conviction politics were possible in the Cold War age. The Social Democrat Anna Lindh was 46 and not yet prime minister of her country.

For me, and for a generation of Swedish women who grew up in a society that took gender equality for granted, Lindh was an icon. Yesterday, one message pinned to a single red rose on the paving stones outside the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, summed up what Lindh meant to me and millions of other Swedish women: "You were proof that an ordinary hard-working girl could take on the world."

Lindh started taking on the world at an early age. Her father, Staffan, an artist, insists it was not his small-scale career as a local councillor that influenced his daughter. Her mother, Nancy, was a teacher and clearly inspired respect. Last year, Anna Lindh admitted she had failed to give up cigarettes but she always made sure she did not take a puff in public - for fear that her mother would see her smoking on television.

Childhood friends remember an earnest young woman who bored them with endless political talk on the school bus. At the age of 13 - when she had already been a member of the Swedish anti-Vietnam War movement for two years - she joined the Young Socialists.

I first met her in 1986 when she was national chairwoman of the Swedish Young Socialists and I was presenting a youth radio programme which aimed to tackle political issues in a way that would interest young voters. In those days, wearing owl-like glasses and a woolly pully, she was a little frumpish and awfully earnest. But she was by far the sharpest of all the young politicians who came on to the show in the run-up to the 1986 general election. The others wore badges - like the red and yellow no-nukes symbol that was popular in Europe at the time - and they dutifully trotted out the party line they had signed up to. Lindh had her own views and you felt she would not adhere to a position unless she knew the facts and had formulated her own opinion.

Opinionated she was. She recently said: "Sometimes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes me so angry that I kick the wastepaper bin in my office or throw things around." Comments like those could not fail to endear Lindh to the public - all the more so because they always appeared spontaneous; un-spun. She was a mother who often referred to her family - she leaves a husband, Bo Holmberg, and two sons, David and Filip - but she never exploited the image for political gain. Rather, she would be self-critical. Asked once how she juggled her job and motherhood, Lindh recalled an EU summit in Nice and an evening telephone conversation with David.

He wanted me to come home immediately, but I explained that it was important for me to be in Nice because it would allow more countries to join the European Union. He responded by saying, "I see, you want even more parents to be away from their children." I thought, "Thanks David, that's just what I needed."

Lindh was a reluctant politician who found the business of politics vicious and, in 1982, when she became an MP, declined the chance to become Sweden's youngest ever minister. Instead she completed her law studies at Uppsala University and worked as an articled clerk at Stockholm High Court. After leaving the chair of the Young Socialists after a six-year tenure in 1990, Lindh joined the executive of the Social Democratic Party.

From then on, a career in politics became an inevitability and she worked in city-hall politics in the capital until 1994 when she became Environment Minister - a portfolio she accepted even though she was opposed to the construction of the giant Øresund bridge which connects Sweden and Denmark.

When, in 1998, she became Sweden's youngest-ever Foreign Minister, she only accepted the job because she was guaranteed unflinching support from the Social Democrats' colourless but skilled leader, Göran Persson. The sceptics were numerous - they felt that appointing a young blonde would give Sweden a lightweight presence in international forums.

It had the opposite effect, and in Sweden's six-month presidency of the EU in 2001, her star rose beyond all expectation and her critics - including Swedish diplomatic heavyweights such as Pierre Schori - were silenced once and for all. In a world of grey, male politicians each watching their backs as much as their futures, Lindh proved that all she needed to spin was a very human tapestry of honesty, vulnerability, conviction, charm and physical beauty.

With Macedonia on the brink of civil war during Sweden's EU presidency, Lindh played a leading role in getting both sides to bury their differences. At one point, during a round of tough negotiations, her picture was burnt in the streets of Skopje.

Ulf Dahlsten, who was Palme's personal secretary at the time of his shooting to death in Stockholm in 1986, said that Lindh was the most important Swedish political figure since the late prime minister:

In her speeches against the war in Iraq and in support of the Palestinians, she emerged clearly as Palme's natural heir. Olof Palme wanted to be able to go to the cinema like all ordinary Swedes and that's what he was doing with his wife when he was shot. Anna Lindh wanted to be able to go shopping. They wanted freedom from official duties, freedom from fear and bodyguards.

In the same way as Palme felt he had a moral duty to speak his mind, Lindh was fearless and steeped in integrity. They had a lot in common. But, when Palme died, Sweden was shaken to the core. We could not believe what had happened and we were paralysed by it for years. May what has happened to Anna Lindh be a wake-up call to us all.

Alex Duval Smith

Related links:

Swedish euro poll to go ahead despite murder

Savage murder that has forced a nation to confront a brutal reality

'A great minister, a great Swede'

Robin Cook: 'It is hard to accept that her warm smile and zest for life have been extinguished'

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