Society: The only way is Finland

Our politicians seem to be obsessed with the place, but what makes it so great? Equality, education – and Angry Birds

Tim Walker
Wednesday 23 May 2012 11:38 BST

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Louise Thomas

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America may once have been the Land of Opportunity, but thanks to its rising levels of inequality – not to mention the nightmarish visa restrictions – our political class now has another destination in mind. "If you want the American Dream," Ed Miliband says, "go to Finland." This week, the Labour leader told a conference on social mobility that "if you are born poor in a more equal society like Finland, Norway or Denmark, then you have a better chance of moving into a good job than if you are born poor in the United States".

Finland may feature consistently in the world suicide rate top 20, but according to the recent UN World Happiness Report, it's actually the second-"happiest" country in the world (after nearby Denmark), based not only on wealth, but on political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption. The 2011 Failed States Index, compiled by Washington think tank the Fund for Peace, ranked it the globe's most "successful" country socially, economically and politically.

Its students are also the best in the West, achieving extraordinarily high scores in a triennial survey for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). According to Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist writing in The Atlantic: "Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the programme that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity."

Finland rivals East Asian educational hothouses such as Singapore and South Korea, but without those countries' high-pressure homework expectations. There are no nationally standardised tests, inspections or league tables, no private schools or private universities, and no fees. Competition is frowned upon; co-operation is king.

The country is conspicuously equal in other arenas, too. It was, for instance, the first in the world to give women the vote, in 1906, 12 years before the UK and 14 before the US. A century later, in 2009, the nation that gave us Nokia was the first to to enshrine broadband as a fundamental human right, when the government promised every Finnish citizen access to a 100mbps connection by 2015.

Finland has much else to recommend it to aspiring émigrés too. It is rich in culture, boasting both the celebrated classical compositions of Jean Sibelius, and the marginally less-celebrated metal stylings of Eurovision Song Contest winners Lordi. Its cuisine is far from merely herring-based: after Silvio Berlusconi insulted their food, Finnish chefs beat Italy to first place in the 2008 America's Plate International Pizza Contest, with a smoked-reindeer pizza called the Berlusconi.

And Finland is known for its family-friendly attractions: Father Christmas in Lapland, the Moomin Museum in Tampere, and even an Angry Birds theme park – which was opened earlier this month by Rovio, the Finnish games company behind David Cameron's favourite iPad game.

On the downside, the Finnish language is near-impossible to learn, and almost entirely unrelated to any other besides Estonian and Hungarian. Finland was also the only Scandinavian country to join the euro, so it might be wise to wait for the results of that second Greek election before you start looking for houses in Helsinki.

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