Swedish drive is stuck in neutral: Annika Savill goes home to Stockholm and sees some big changes - but she mustn't grumble

THE TWO sisters had come up from the provinces to 'do Stockholm' on Friday night. 'What crisis?' they asked, queuing up in front of a hole-in-the-wall cash dispenser. 'Do you mean the mid-life crisis? The years have probably been kind to us.'

Margareta and Karin Dagman are the kind of practical stoics who remind one that, no matter how much Swedish society may change, its people probably never will. Sacred cows of the welfare state have been slaughtered here in the name of European realities, and more and more will be slaughtered in the next few years before Sweden's entry to the European Community.

But the Swedes have a hard time getting het up about it. The Dagman sisters, who clearly conduct a practised line in unsmiling quips, did not feel affected by last week's dramatic rise in interest rates, for instance.

'Neutrality? Whatever that stands for,' was their comment on another tradition that has been thrown overboard.

Both working women in their 40s, one in her best pink suit, they were more concerned with finding a good restaurant to kick off their night out. Karin withdrew 800 kronor ( pounds 80) from the cash dispenser. Would that be enough in a country where a pint of lager costs about pounds 4? 'We'll start with that anyway, and we'll see,' she answered, before the two set off into the night.

It is clear, though, that something long repressed has been unleashed in Sweden in the past 10 years. Last week on television a shopping mall was advertising items such as sprays to improve the grip of golf club-handles (10 years ago, commercial television was still science fiction here).

Newspapers reported that schoolchildren on the west coast were about to be issued with electronic access cards for their school dinners in order to crack down on freeloaders (10 years ago, feeding the freeloaders would probably have been considered a worthy act).

But what has not changed is the tenacity of the 'mustn't grumble' majority.

Mikka Pulkkinen, 25, works as a supermarket shelf-stocker and has a part-time job as a refrigerator technician to help to pay the mortgage on his flat in Stockholm. One-quarter of his mortgage is tied to the variable interest rate and has gone up from 16 to 20 per cent. Only when pressed does he say: 'I do think the government has been a bit meek. They just keep saying how good it is that the banks are doing this. But, in general, I think the government reforms are good. Of course, every person should learn to pay his own way.'

Clearly, the every-man-for- himself principle did not apply to informing oneself about the EC membership. 'I can't have an opinion,' said Mikka. 'We've been given pretty lousy information about it. The government doesn't tell you anything. It's as though it doesn't want you to know about the negative aspects.'

The frustrating thing about Swedes is that, even when they do grumble, they sound as unexcited as though they were telling you the time of day.

Per-Arne Kreitz, a railway engineer, pushing a trolley containing his family's weekend shopping, was not going to be one of the every-man-for-himself school. 'What I think of the government probably shouldn't be put in writing,' he begins quietly. This sounds promising; but wait for the punchline: 'It will, of course, be trickier for us who have children in day care.' After commenting on shortages of day-care places because of budget cuts, he adds: 'These are not really reforms. They are regressions to the 1920s. The idea that everyone should take care of himself is a bit of a pity.' His family of four live in a three-bedroom flat in central Stockholm. The rent is pounds 400 a month. 'We Swedes are really bloody well off. You have to keep things in perspective. At least our houses are warm.'

I had forgotten the interminable queues which, for some reason, form outside the ladies' room in any popular drinking spot on a Saturday evening. Whether it is because the cubicles are too few, or the ladies who use them too slow, I have never understood; but nobody questions that it should be this way, and nobody grumbles. Indeed, when I emerged from the cubicle, I was praised by all seven ladies waiting behind me for the speed with which I had conducted my business, as though I had given them all a surprise present.

'The Swede endures,' says Ann-Marie Janson, a 33-year-old doctor with a critical eye. 'It's in his nature. He does not take initiatives. Here we have interest rates going through the roof, and people still say the government is doing the right things for them.' She reckons the popular response to cuts in child benefits, for instance, would not be social turmoil, but simply fewer children.

Patrik Ristner, an engineering student at the Royal Institute of Technology, says he would still vote for Carl Bildt, the conservative Prime Minister and champion of revisionism, if there were an election tomorrow. 'Having said that, I think he is the wrong man in the wrong place. When he shows his face, it's simply bad PR. He's supposed to be 45, but you get the impression he's just a 30- year-old stick from a posh neighbourhood. But I can see why people don't complain more.'

Even though he is speaking to a compatriot in his native tongue, he adds with a curious choice of words: 'Standing here weeping in front of an English journalist would, after all, be undignified.'

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