Sweden's cycling royals do it better: They, too, have scandals. But national self-confidence keeps full-blown crises at bay, says Andrew Brown

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DEFENDERS of the pomp and pageantry and mystery of the British Crown reserve their utmost scorn for 'bicycling monarchies', as the plain, unfussy royal families of Scandinavia are known. But the evidence suggests bicycling monarchies are better balanced. The Swedish monarchy is now reduced to a ceremonial stub: when the country's present constitution was being drawn up in 1970, the then Prime Minister, Olaf Palme, joked that he could make Sweden a republic 'with a stroke of my pen'.

Yet King Carl Gustaf XVI and Queen Silvia are loved and respected despite family scandals that even the British have not quite bettered yet. Their son was widely reported in the press this summer to have been smeared all over with marmalade, which was then licked off by classmates at a retreat in the woods before his confirmation class. If stuff like that goes on at Gordonstoun, it has been well hushed up.

It is worth asking why Swedish scandals don't scandalise. At first sight, the answer is simply that Swedes are comfortable with sex in a way that the British are not. But a deeper investigation suggests that the answer is that the Swedes are comfortable with being Swedish in an unselfconscious way that no Englishman has really been able to feel comfortable about being British since about 1947.

The last real Swedish royal scandal was over the King's boyfriend. In the 1940s King Gustav V, who had reigned since 1907, fell in love with his tennis partner, a businessman called Haiby. The reaction was ruthless and brutal. Haiby was lured into exile, jailed abroad, and the whole story suppressed for 20 years. By the time it emerged, the scandal was more about the cover-up than the fact of the dead king's proclivities. Abusing power, and concealing the traces afterwards, were acts of bad citizenship, therefore immoral, therefore scandalous. What went on in private life was a different matter.

This is partly because Swedes are puritanical about money, not sex. The illustrated magazines collectively known as 'gossip papers' endlessly and breathlessly report each new revolution in the love lives of the rich and famous. The cumulative effect is curiously static. Returning once to a small town where I had lived, six years after I thought I had left it for ever, I found the newspaper kiosk displaying exactly the same magazine billboard as it had shown when I first came there: 'Lill-Babs' New love]' It was the same actress, the same headline, but an even newer boyfriend.

On the other hand, fiddling taxes, or even fiddling expenses, is really a serious matter, perhaps because almost everyone aspires to succeed at it, as the British do at adultery. Each spring the Swedish tabloids used to publish pictures of the homes of really successful tax avoiders, in the vicious way that British tabloids will publish the faces of some undistinguished 'two-timing love rat', in order to encourage the others.

One could argue that Swedish papers do this because cheating on your taxes hurts all other taxpayers, whereas cheating on your husband hurts only him.

That is too materialistic an explanation. To cheat on taxes, or to abuse power, is the sign of being a bad Swede, and so a bad human being, who makes the world worse for everyone who shares it with you. This is a very 20th-century definition of goodness, even in Sweden.

Poor old King Gustav V with his boyfriend was stuck in a time when a respectable Swede could not have his weaknesses. To be a good Swede in his day was a manly and martial ideal formed around a poor country's nostalgia for an empire that had once encompassed most of Scandinavia, Poland and the Baltic states, and which threatened Russia seriously.

The martial and manly virtues needed to run such an empire did not fall out of fashion until the 1950s, too late to help the old King. They now seem wholly un-Swedish, though the autobiographical films and novels of Ingmar Bergman give a vivid picture of the old style of unrestrained patriarchy and bullying. Prince Charles, packed off to Gordonstoun, would understand very well the horrors of being brought up in the old school when time had made its virtues unnecessary and its vices disgusting.

The old style was replaced by a sort of inverted machismo: a conviction that even if Sweden was not the toughest nation in the world, it was one of the most progressive. The world might no longer fear Sweden, but it would follow her. This moral superiority was almost as offensive to neighbouring countries as the periodic invasions of the past had been. But it allowed Swedes to feel good about themselves and superior to their neighbours. To be a good Swede was to be a good person; indeed a better human being than unfortunate foreigners could become.

This is not an absurd belief at all. For any morality is rooted in a particular society. Just as being a good husband means being some individual woman's good husband, being a good citizen means belonging to some particular country, even when nationalism takes the form of being more internationalist than anyone else, as it did in Sweden during the heyday of social democracy.

So long as they grew richer and richer and more and more sanctimonious, the Swedes had no problems with morality. Moral behaviour was what made Swedes richer and happier. Immoral behaviour was the opposite. There are signs that this self- confidence is ending. But Sweden still has nothing like the confusion and uncertainty about how to become richer and happier that you will find here.

The only really interesting, bitter, and divisive conflict in British politics at the moment is about Britain's place in the world. And since we don't know how the country's interests are best served, we don't know how to be good citizens or good subjects. That explains the savagery with which we turn on anyone who might be bad, or weak. We no longer know which forms of weakness and wickedness the country can afford.

The idea of being a good Englishman is almost impossible now to define seriously. This is most clearly seen when we reach for words of condemnation and try to describe a bad Englishman. Major Hewitt is a 'cad', a 'bounder', a 'rotter'. These are fairy-tale words. They do not describe real obligations broken, because we no longer believe that a gentleman is a real person. A gentleman, after all, was an Englishman brought up to do a particular task: to run an empire. That job is no longer required, and no satisfactory replacement for it has been found.

Since we do not know whether Prince Charles is a good Englishman or not, we do not know whether he is a good man or not. We are left with empty scandals that have no moral at all.

(Photograph omitted)