Swedes cling to nanny state's apron

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The Independent Online
SWEDEN is so dependent on Mother Welfare that it is powerless to deal with its economic crisis. It resembles a car lying on its back, wheels spinning in the air and slipping towards the abyss.

The fact that it was Germany's Der Spiegel which used the simile ahead of today's general election illustrates that it probably takes an outsider to be able to say it. But such is the Swedes' inability to wean themselves off half a century of welfare-state mother's milk that the Social Democrats are almost certain to be voted back today after three years of Conservative-led government.

The 10 per cent unemployment rate has killed off what confidence there was in the right-wing alternative. 'It is just like learning to drive on the right side of the road when you've driven on the left for 50 years,' said one senior official. 'It scares a lot of people, and it doesn't happen overnight.'

But by the same token it is probably only the Social Democrats themselves who enjoy sufficient trust to be able to cut down to size the welfare state they created in more than four decades of virtually unbroken rule. 'It takes De Gaulle to betray the French nationalist sentiment and withdraw from Algeria. It takes the Social Democrats to withdraw the privileges they have distributed,' the official said. 'There would be too much hatred if the Conservatives do it alone.'

Or, as the Social Democratic daily Aftonbladet declared yesterday: 'Only Ingvar Carlsson and the Social Democrats have in this campaign presented a programme that can give the country firm and consistent leadership. And only Carlsson appears to be able to mobilise the majority it takes.'

Some question whether Mr Carlsson, whose government was ousted by Carl Bildt's Conservative-led coalition three years ago, has the stature to assume the mantle of Sweden's De Gaulle. But no major party is in any real doubt that Sweden is now paying for what is probably the most expensive welfare system in the Western world. Tens of thousands of companies have gone bankrupt, interest rates have soared; investors have fled, and more have threatened to do so.

Even the trade union movement sounds a realistic note that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Bertil Jonsson, head of the Swedish TUC, said this week: 'It is not wrong to make demands of the unemployed. Those who do not want to work or to accept the education offered them should not be paid.'

Mr Carlsson has already accepted a cut in unemployment benefit from 90 to 80 per cent of previous salary. But mostof his agenda for cuts has not been made clear to voters; even his comparatively modest suggestion to cut one day's pay for parents off work to care for a sick child caused outrage.

The Social Democrats are planning to win the election first. 'I think they have tacitly asked for carte blanche to introduce further cuts once they are in,' said one analyst. 'It could mean increasing class numbers from 30 to 40, overcrowding hospital wards . . . or whatever it takes.'

During the Second World War, Sweden's political parties wasted no time in forming an all-party unity government. The crisis here is ominous enough to make many believe the same is needed now.