Over the last decade, the media has been having something of a love affair with the ‘Scandinavian miracle’. Despite their wretched climate and gloomy winters, the Nordic nations have come to symbolise a sort of snowy utopia to their southern neighbours.
The civic commitment, gender equality, highly-developed welfare state, low corruption and high educational standards of these nations, so the consensus goes, is creating more advanced and enlightened societies. Scandinavia has given us Ikea, Nokia, Bluetooth and Lego. They even won Eurovision with a group of orcs. However, one man has set out to uncover the skeletons in the closets of these ‘perfect societies’ – to the delight of envious southerners and the irritation of the Scandinavians themselves.
Michael Booth is a British journalist living in Denmark. His book The Almost Nearly Perfect People – The Truth About the Nordic Miracle (Jonathan Cape) takes the reader on a tour of five countries – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland. His research, including interviews with hundreds of Scandinavians, reveals the darker side of the ‘Nordic Miracle’.
Antidepressants, alcoholism, the black market and guns
Denmark has topped the world happiness rankings ever since 1973. But the happiest country in the world also happens to be second on the list (behind Iceland) in antidepressant consumption. One of the reasons for this contradiction is that for a Dane, admitting you’re unhappy or not having the time of your life is considered somehow shameful.
‘Shameful’ also appears to be the current state of the nation’s health service, with some patients rushing to A&E only to be told they have to make an appointment. And while we’re talking about health… Booth’s book also reveals that the Danes are the unhealthiest people in Europe, with high rates of smoking and sugar addiction, widespread obesity, and consumption of saturated fats. They also have the highest cancer rates on the planet.
Finns aren’t great at admitting when they have a problem either. Finland is not far behind Iceland and Denmark in the antidepressant dependency league table. Their culture of always pretending that everything’s fine, and refusing to show their feelings when things go wrong – even to friends and family – has led to them consuming dangerous levels of alcohol as a way of escaping their troubles. One highly typical scene in Helsinki that of a boozed up business executive sheltering in a bar doorway at five in the afternoon, puffing on a cigarette.
That’s right – five in the afternoon – because the Finns, together with the Danes, are among the nationalities that work the fewest hours.
To be precise, they work 1,559 hours and have six weeks holiday a year.
Sweden doesn’t have such a dependency on drink and anti-depressants. Nonetheless, the nation that has sold flat-pack furniture all over the globe has an unsightly skeleton in its closet. Despite being considered a peaceful country with a strong moral conscience, Sweden is also one of the world’s top arms manufacturers. Swedish weaponry and ammunition has found its way to the Middle East, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Iran and Iraq. And this despite the fact that Swedish regulations prohibit the export of arms to countries at war or riven by internal conflict. So while, in theory, they only sell weapons to countries who have no intention of using them, the reality appears to be murkier.
Environmental hypocrisy, xenophobia and non-inclusive education
Speaking of hypocrisy, the Norwegians may boast of their extensive use of renewable energy, but their economy has been based on the extraction and exportation of oil and gas for the past thirty years. Oil revenues account for 47% of the nation’s GDP, making it the world’s third largest fossil fuel exporter, with the industry providing 80,000 jobs. And then we come to whaling…
Fishing is another of the main Norwegian industries, and a particularly profitable part of it is the exportation of whales to Japan. Last year, Norwegian fishermen killed 591 minke whales, despite international bans on the commercial hunting and buying of whale products. This year, sadly, the figure will be even higher. In February, the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries announced a quota increase, giving permission for 999 minke whales to be hunted during the course of the year. This will make the country the world whale-hunting leader, killing more than its two rivals – Iceland and Japan – combined. 90% of the whales hunted last year were pregnant.
Norway also takes first place when it comes to xenophobia, although Sweden’s not far behind. While it’s true that both countries – particularly Sweden – have taken in large numbers of refugees, there has also been a large surge in the popularity of xenophobic far-right parties as a result. The attacks of Anders Behring Breivik in 2011 were rightly met with outrage throughout Norway, and yet, in September of the same year, the ant-Islamist Progress Party – of which Breivik had been a member – won 16.3% of the vote, enough to enable it to form part of a coalition government for the first time in its history. 2013 saw a record number of asylum applications to Norway, but it accepted fewer than half of them (around 5,000 people).
Sweden, to its credit, has taken more refugees per capita than any other European country. However, integration is proving problematic: the government gives the refugees a house and money to live on, but they face many barriers to inclusion in Swedish society. This is partly due to the language and cultural differences, but the growing fear and mistrust of Islam also plays a role.
The high rates of unemployment in Sweden – currently at 20% among the under 25s – and Denmark appears to be connected to a mistrust of immigrants, increasingly concentrated in ghettos on the outskirts of the cities.
‘Look in Alcoholics Anonymous’
Iceland hit the front pages of the world’s media when a huge case of political and financial corruption led the country to the brink of bankruptcy a decade ago. Between 2003 and 2008, Iceland’s three main banks asked for a loan worth more than $140,000m – a figure ten times the nation’s GDP. A handful of business executives, encouraged by politicians, spent the money on parties, alcohol, football teams and other luxuries.
The government was unable to pay the debt and was forced to withdraw the Icelandic krona from economic markets and accept loans worth £4,000m from the IMF and other countries, leaving the nation in bankruptcy. Such corruption and chaos might seem distinctly un-Scandinavian, but in Iceland the concentration of power in politics, media and business is in the hands of a few ideologue extremists.
As poet Sindri Freysson says to Michael Booth, Iceland is such a small society that businessmen, regulators, the media and politicians end up in bed together. ‘If you want to understand how companies hire people here, first take a look at political connections, then family connections, and finally, if neither of those bear fruit, there’s one place left to look: Alcoholics Anonymous.’