Memories of Palme help Bildt to recover

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FIFTY YEARS ago an American firm telexed a Stockholm bank for assurances that its Swedish business partner was a respectable outfit. The reply was that the company - Stora Kopparberg - was established three centuries before Columbus landed in America.

The mining and forestry conglomerate has since abbreviated its name to Stora. This week the 800- year-old company sounded a note of alarm, in chorus with the country's other three leading exporters - Ericsson (telephones), Asea Brown Boveri (engineering) and Volvo (which needs no introduction to middle-class families anywhere).

The quartet - giants that turned a nation of 8 million into an economic power - were seeking to influence tomorrow's general election, widely expected to return the Social Democrats to power after three years of conservative-led rule. They warned that any new taxes would force capital to take flight, increasing unemployment beyond an already staggering 10 per cent.

'Are we going to see them move all their divisions to Sao Paulo?' said a government official. 'No thank you.'

The man who would frighten the giants away is Ingvar Carlsson, born in the 1930s - a decade that saw the foundations of some other institutions that also made Sweden great. One of them was the employer-trade union accords signed at Saltsjobaden, which laid the framework for decades of consensus and industrial peace. 'There is an enormous difference to England,' said a former Social Democratic official. 'Swedish workers have never fought rationalisation and progress.' The spirit of Saltsjobaden, a sort of up-market Brighton in the Stockholm archipelago, remains the most important term in industrial relations to this day.

MrCarlsson's father was a manual worker under those accords. Carlsson the younger went to Chicago, saw dossers, and was proud on his return to set foot in a country that had none. He rose through the party ranks and succeeded Olof Palme as Prime Minister when the latter was assassinated in the street eight years ago by a gunman who was never found.

The achievements of the trade union movement and four decades of SD rule get few acknowledgements from Carl Bildt, the 45-year- old conservative PM, or from his equally young ideological cronies. When the group set out on their crusade as students in the early 1970s, their beliefs were sacrilegious. Now running the country after what they saw as years of ruinous over-spending, they brook no argument. One of them recollected: 'Everything I said then, 25 years ago, about the cost of the welfare state, has proved true. We're not interested in giving any nods to the Social Democrats' achievements.'

As one insider said: 'These guys haven't exactly experienced hardship at first hand.' Mr Bildt comes from a dynasty: his great- grandfather was PM; his father-in- law a conservative party leader.

Mr Carlsson seems to have a problem about confronting the eloquent Mr Bildt. For as long as possible, he avoided a one-to-one election debate with him. It may be that he considers Mr Bildt impossibly smug, with his rolling 'r's that have nothing to do with dialect and everything to do with a Swedish plum in the mouth.

'But do you know the real reason (he won't face him)?' said one insider. 'It's because Bildt reminds him too much of Palme. If you think about it, they are almost like the same person.'

That Mr Bildt should have evolved into the reincarnation of the equally upper-class dead Social Democratic leader - who could also turn a phrase or two - must indeed be off-putting. Mr Carlsson is confronted with not only his own inadequacy in comparison to his rival, but also his inadequacy in comparison to his dead predecessor. When Mr Carlsson was finally dragged into a head-to-head debate a few weeks ago, the result was not felicitous. The Social Democrat, hedging any new tax plans, has proposed cuts in payments to parents taking time off work to care for sick children. This gave Mr Bildt the chance to beat the welfare state advocates at their own game: it was 'stealing from mothers to give to motorways'. One Bildt aide gloated 'that was a classic Palme debate trick'.

One government official summed up: 'The trouble with Carlsson is that every time he opens his mouth his party loses two points. He's kind enough, but doesn't have the presence to be a father of the nation in the old socialist mould.'

If further proof were needed that times have changed, it can be found in the fact that the SDs actually brought over a group of American consultants from President Bill Clinton's winning team to help Mr Carlsson through this campaign. They told him at the outset to be as passive as possible, and rely on what was the SDs' original outright majority in the opinion polls. 'But they ignored the fact that politics is a dynamic process, and things evolve,' said a Bildt adviser. 'Carlsson has now lost 10 per cent in the course of the campaign - an unprecedented trend.'

Mr Carlsson will have to rely on at least the small environmentalist and Communist parties, and possibly a defection by the Liberals from Mr Bildt's four-party coalition, to get in. A million voters still refuse to declare their intentions. The conservative led bloc, while still trailing the left by almost 10 per cent last week, believe they may have a chance to close the gap by tomorrow.

(Photograph omitted)

(Map omitted)