The dark side of the 'nordic miracle'

Scandinavian countries may not be a perfect model for social cohesion and happiness

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

“If you want the American dream, go to Finland,” British Labour Leader Ed Miliband said after a Nordic jaunt a couple of years back. At the time, he was hardly alone in his thinking. For several decades now, the rest of Europe and, indeed, much of the world has looked to the so-called “Nordic miracle” of the Scandinavian countries as a model for quality of life and social mobility.

Denmark, Sweden and Norway (the former Viking nations officially classed as Scandinavian), as well as their casually lumped-in Nordic brethren, Iceland and Finland, have been celebrated for everything from their progressive state-run schools, generous parental benefits and reasonable minority governments to their minimalist interior design and rugged knitwear. This image is further bolstered by the apparent bliss of their people. For decades now, northern European nations have led the pack in the unending stream of global happiness surveys and quality of life reports that fill the international airwaves. Indeed, the most recent “World Happiness Report” conducted by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network in 2013 found the most contented countries on the planet to be Denmark, Norway and Switzerland, in that order.

On all sides of the political spectrum, there is plenty to admire about the Nordic model. They are peaceable, stable and remarkably uncorrupt. Despite the high tax burden of the welfare state, capitalism also thrives, from the oil exploration know-how of Norway to the engineering prowess of Sweden.

That’s the received wisdom, anyway. In recent years, a shift has occurred across these European hinterlands that suggests the Nordic and Scandinavian nations are perhaps not the promised lands we believe them to be.

Michael Booth, a British writer who lives in Denmark with his Danish wife, has taken aim at the myth of Nordic flawlessness with his new book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle, a comical investigation into the darker, twisted truths beneath the Scandinavian dream. A reluctant expat, Booth finds much to love in his new Danish homeland, but also bemoans the “punishing weather, heinous taxes, the predictable monoculture, the stifling insistence on lowest-common-denominator consensus, the fear of anything or anyone different from the norm, the distrust of ambition and disapproval of success, the appalling public manners and the remorseless diet of fatty pork, salty liquorice, cheap beer and marzipan.” And that’s just for starters.

One of Booth’s key observations is that, apart from a collection of bonny statistics, few non-Scandinavians seem to know much about these supposedly perfect lands. “How come you have no idea where Aalborg or Trondheim actually are?” he asks jovially. “Why can no one you know speak Swedish or ‘get by’ in Norwegian? Name the Danish foreign minister. Or Norway’s most popular comedian.”

While the fever for all things Nordic has raged in the cultural sphere—from the gourmet craze for foraging (perfected by bearded Michelin-starred chef Magnus Nilsson) to the rise of Swedish crime novelists Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell—Scandinavian culture, according to Booth, is, in reality, anything but cool. In recent years, a number of anomalies have emerged in the tastefully whitewashed Nordic utopia. In Norway, there is the recent rise of the far right, an ongoing abortion debate (the government is currently discussing plans to allow a doctor to refuse to refer patients for an abortion if he is ethically opposed to the act) and, of course, Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011 in a horrendous attack apparently fuelled by xenophobic, far-right views.

In Sweden, there are also emerging social tensions, evident in the rise of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party, which won seats in parliament for the first time in 2010 and continues to gain support. Add to this Denmark and Norway’s lagging productivity, Finland’s high rates of alcoholism and suicide, and a more complex portrait of the Scandinavian paradise begins to emerge.

Fans of Sweden’s gentle egalitarian ethic might be interested to know it is now also the world’s eighth-largest exporter of arms. Danes, meanwhile, have the highest level of personal debt in relation to income in the world, as well as the highest rate of cancer. Murder and suicide rates in Finland are some of the highest in Europe, as is their medical need for prescribed psychotropic drugs. Most bizarre, Denmark is one of the only countries in the world in which bestiality is not a criminal act (apparently due to fears that a law would somehow expose pig farmers to prosecution when they inseminate their pigs).

Booth floats the dubious-sounding statistic that an estimated seven per cent of Danish men have had sex with an animal. Whether you believe that or not, it seems impossible to read the UN’s “World Happiness Report” in quite the same way again.

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