Swedish Summer Talks

Every summer in Sweden, there is a wonderful tradition. This tradition began in 1959.

Every day for 6 weeks or so, at 1pm, there is a summer talk on Swedish radio channel 1. This might sound mundane, but it is, in fact, an integral part of the Swedish summer.

Each day, a different person is responsible for the talk. This person shares their life stories, perspectives, life lessons, experiences and sometimes their tragedies. They play music of their choice. It is 90 minutes of pure relaxation, with a big dash of voyeurism. Some of the talkers are celebrities, some are politicians, or authors or activists, or influencers, or actors or philosophers or soldiers or priests or even ordinary people.

The talks are in Swedish, although the speakers can originate from outside of Sweden. It is considered an honour to be asked to hold a talk. I would love to do one. I’d share by life story and my perspectives on Swedish culture from my outside perspective. Oh and I’d play music by Kate Bush and The Smiths! What a self indulgent treat!

This year so far we have heard State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell share his story. We also heard climate activist Greta Thunberg. She actually did her talk twice – both in Swedish and English. It is a really inspiring, and somewhat frightening talk about the climate crisis we are in. If you’d like to listen to it, and I urge you to do so, here is the link:

So listen and enjoy a piece of Swedish summer tradition.

Sweden the pariah

It is well known that Sweden has taken a different approach to the pandemic, one that didn’t involve totally locking down society and enforcing quarantine and curfew. Instead, the Swedish way relied on the responsibility of the population to go about life, with some restrictions and be careful. Time will tell if this was the right choice in the long run.

In the short run, we see that Sweden has a relatively high incidence of death from Covid-19. It is of course hard to compare figures, because it depends on what and how you are counting. Sweden cross checks against the death register and counts every death, in every location. Not just in hospitals, or in intensive care units. Because the virus got into care homes, the vast majority of deaths is unfortunately found in the over 80 age group.

It seems like Sweden is now paying a price for the more relaxed corona strategy. With countries around the world slowly opening up, they have released lists of approved countries from where tourists are allowed. Sweden is not on many of these lists. Swedes are perceived as plague-carrying high risk tourists.

Sweden’s neighbours Finland, Norway and Denmark have opened up for travel after their lockdowns. But the borders to Sweden remain closed. Sweden has become the social pariah of Scandinavia. Norway released an interesting decision this week. No traveling to Sweden, except to the Swedish Baltic island of Gotland. However, domestic travel is allowed in Sweden, so the popular holiday island of Gotland will be packed with Swedes, mostly from Stockholm, crammed in together with Norwegian tourists. Not sure how Norway was thinking on that one.

Of course, as time goes on, Swedish tourists will be welcome again around the world. As Sweden’s death toll reduces, and the virus ebbs out, borders will open again. It’s just an usual situation right now for Swedes to find themselves unpopular.

So, staycation is the melody of summer 2020. My plans include a socially-distanced trip to lake Vättern, and a road trip up north. I’m also going to explore my hometown of Stockholm more.

If you’re staying in Sweden, what do you plan to do?

The end of a Swedish murder mystery

At 11.21 pm on 28 February 1986, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot by a lone assailant. He was killed in cold blood on the street after visiting a cinema with his wife. A second shot injured her. Lying in a pool of blood, in the cold Swedish winter, Olof Palme died.

The assassination of Olof Palme (to the left above) has caused headlines around the world. Theories abounded on who had assassinated this very popular and very hated politician. During the last 34 years, the police have investigated the case and failed to identify the murderer. The unsolved case of Olof Palme has gaped like an open wound in Swedish society.

However, today the prosecutors responsible for the investigation announced that they know who the assassin is. In making this claim, they have ended the decades-long mystery. No conclusive evidence was provided, no DNA and no weapon, but prosecutors believe they have the man. They have pointed to Stig Engström, a graphic designer working at a nearby company, pictured to the right above. Stig Engström committed suicide in 2000, so cannot be charged. Therefore the case is closed after 34 years!

Finally, the mystery can be resolved. Or can it? with any lack of clear evidence, it is a very frustrating finale to a very drawn out drama. For a country searching for an answer, this will probably not give them it. And as Stig Engström took his story to the grave, I guess we will actually never know the truth.

Livestream Swedish National Day

Today is Sweden’s National Day. It was declared in 1983, and was first celebrated as a public holiday in 2005. Prior to that, the 6th June was known as Swedish Flag Day to commemorate that Sweden has its own flag – a celebration introduced in 1916 after the dissolution of the union with Norway in 1905.

Swedes celebrate National Day on 6 June in honour of two historical events: Gustav Vasa being elected king (6 June 1523) and the adoption of a new constitution (6 June 1809).

Normally, the King and Queen of Sweden take part in a televised ceremony at Skansen, Stockholm’s open-air museum, on National Day. The yellow and blue Swedish flag is run up the mast, and children in traditional peasant costume present the royal couple with bouquets of summer flowers.

Otherwise, it’s a bit of a weird day, National Day. It’s celebrated with organised events in parks and squares. Buses fly the flag on their rooves, people hang up the flag on poles and people gather in large crowds to wave the flag. Other than this, many people don’t really know what to do. There is no collective memory around the 6th June, such as independence or winning a war, to pull people together. No sense of achievement. Or historical pride. So, the day is usually appreciated as a day off work to, for example, meet friends, or play golf, or day drink or sunbathe or go to Ikea.

One interesting event that happens on this day is the Citizen Ceremony. All new citizens up and down the country are invited to their town hall to participate in a ceremony to welcome them to Sweden as new Swedes. Usually, the mayor proceeds over the event and it’s followed by the most Swedish thing of all – Fika (coffee and cinnamon buns). When I participated 9 years ago, Crown Princess Victoria was actually there also. It did feel very official, with participants from all over the world dressed in their best clothes such as elegant saris, busutis and kanzus. Personally, I wore a blue jacket with a yellow handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket.

Due to the current pandemic, lots of celebrations are cancelled this year. As a replacement http://www.sweden.se are carrying out a digital event. This is what they write:

‘Sweden live: National Day @ home

Make yourself comfortable and join us as we celebrate Sweden’s National Day. In this 24-hour livestream Swedish artists will play for you from their living rooms, chefs will cook with you, museums will dazzle you with their exhibits – and you might also get the chance to spot some moose… Enjoy! Here’s the link!

https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/lets-celebrate-the-national-day-of-sweden/

Deserted Swedish streets

For those of you who have bought into the myth that Sweden is doing nothing to combat the epidemic, here is a photo of downtown Stockholm. It was taken today by a friend of mine at 11.00am. The normally bustling streets of the capital are deserted. It is admittedly a ‘bridge day’ between a public holiday and a weekend, but even so, the streets are usually much busier than this.

This is a testimony to the fact that most Swedes are taking it seriously.

May 1st in Sweden – a day of solidarity

I have recently been reminiscing a lot about my University days. Not sure why. Maybe it’s the self isolation that makes us dig deeper, and further back. Old faces and forgotten names have popped into my head – Ginger Bill, Gertie the Goth, Posh Sarah, and her with the dislocating knees. Something Peacock, I believe.

Anyway, I was actually in touch with an old friend yesterday – Bob from Yorkshire – a person I probably haven’t physically met since 1988. Concerned about the state of affairs in the UK, he mentioned that he follows my writing and enjoys reading about Sweden. He found it ‘reassuring’ to know that ‘some places in the world still hold a candle, however small, to a more egalitarian future’.

In fact, never has this comment been more relevant than today – May 1st. In Sweden, and in many other countries, May 1st has been embraced as the International Workers’ Day. In 1938, May 1st became Sweden’s first non-religious public holiday and has been an important celebration of class equality, labourers and the working classes since then.

Usually, around Sweden, traffic is shut off, huge flag-waving demonstrations are held and people gather to hear speeches from their politicians and representatives – most commonly from the political left. However, these are corona times and all demonstrations and large gatherings are banned.

So this year will be different. Instead of seeing the politicians on the streets, they are coming onto our screens. For example, at 11am, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, will be broadcasting his May 1st speech to the nation over Facebook and You Tube. As a Social Democrat, he will apparently talk about what kind of society Sweden should be. I’m sure it’s going to be right up Bob’s alley.

So let’s celebrate together, separately. Remember to stay home, avoid crowds and wash your hands. This is a day for solidarity. As a wise man once said, we might not be in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.

Happy May the first!


The Swedish ‘recommendation’

In the wake of covid-19, the National Agency of Public Health has provided the Swedish population with recommendations and advice. However, it seems that these very words ‘recommendation’ (rekommendation) and ‘advice’ (råd) are causing problems for many people.

How do you understand the word ‘recommendation’? Maybe it’s a friend who is making a suggestion to you? Or a family member who is promoting a certain behaviour? Or a respected critic who is letting you know what restaurant you should eat at? For most of us, the words ‘recommendation’ and ‘advice’ imply a suggestion that we can decide to listen to or not, act on or not. This is how we understand it.

But it doesn’t always mean this and this is where linguistic confusion is arising. As I understand it in Swedish, when ‘recommendation’ or ‘advice’ is used by a government authority it is not something to be taken as a suggestion – it is a serious instruction that has to be followed. It is the strongest action an authority can take. The next step is a law change decided by the parliament.

So when the Swedish Agency for Public Health recommends that we stand 2 meters apart, it is not a recommendation as we might understand it, it is a strict instruction, and does not include a high level of individual choice. It is the step before criminalising something.

In his press briefing today, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said ‘allmänna råd från myndigheter är ingen lösa tips. Det förväntas att (alla) som omfattas av råden följer dem. Inte ibland, utan varje dag och varje minut.’ This translates roughly as ’general advice from an authority is not just a tip. Everybody who is covered by this advice is expected to follow it. Not just sometimes, but every day and every minute.’

This confusion between colloquial terminology and governmental terminology can explain a lot of the behaviour and attitudes we see around us. People are not defying the authorities, they just think that recommendations are elective.

But the bottom line is this – we do not have a choice, even though we might interpret it so. We are obliged to all follow the instructions we are provided with. Zealously.

If we do this, we avoid criminalization and curfew and hopefully can together quickly crush corona.

Surviving our VUCA world

A quote from Charles M Schultz in the comic strip Peanuts goes like this ‘Worrying won’t stop the bad stuff from happening, it just stops you from enjoying the good’. Here, he is referring to our personal ability to manage a VUCA world.

Have you heard of the acronym VUCA? It’s a very useful term right now.

Defined on Wiki, VUCA was first used in the leadership theories of Bennis and Nanus to describe or to reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations.

  • V = Volatility: the nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.
  • U = Uncertainty: the lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.
  • C = Complexity: the multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues, no cause-and-effect chain and confusion that surrounds organization.
  • A = Ambiguity: the haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion.

VUCA often impacts how individuals and organisations make decisions, plan forward, manage risks, foster change and solve problems. Our ability to operate in a VUCA world is defined by our fear, comfort levels, optimism and by how much we try to control or avoid uncertainty.

More than ever, we are living in a VUCA world. None of us know how this corona virus epidemic will end. Here in Sweden, society seems to be shutting down and the economy is in the middle of a major crisis. A global recession seems inevitable.

So how do we get through it?

Our ability to get through this without emotional breakdown does not come from panic, rumour and phobia.

According to Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, it calls for a response which he calls VUCA 2.0: Vision, Understanding, Courage and Adaptability. From the government, from employers and from each individual. Thinking and acting in this way provides us with the stability and psychological safety we will need to get through to the other side.

So, how do you personally handle the concept of VUCA?

Dear Swede – does this shameful act represent you??!

Currently at the border between Greece and Turkey, there are thousands of desperate refugees. Greece cannot cope with such a new massive influx of people and so, with support of the EU, the country is strengthening and protecting the border. Fortress Europe is a reality.

As a member of the EU, Sweden supports this approach and hopes to arrive at a new agreement with Turkey to cope with this humanitarian catastrophe. The aim is to find a solution that is manageable for both Turkey and the EU, and that is a responsible way to handle mass migration and immigration.

But one Swedish political party has taken matters into their own shameful hands. Literally. The leader of the right wing party Swedish Democrats has mustered up the energy to travel to the border. Here, he is facing the refugees eye to eye. He is looking into the fearful faces of men, women, elderly people and children. And he is handing them a flyer. The flyer has the following words on it:

Sweden is full. Don’t come to us! We can’t give you more money or provide any housing. Sorry about this message.’ The flyer is then signed ‘The Swedish people, Swedish Democrats’

I cannot imagine the lack of empathy that is required to be able to this. I cannot imagine how cold and hard this man’s heart must be. To stand at the border and hand out these fliers as part of a political caper is both callous and cruel.

He claims to represent Sweden in this matter. His party has only 17.5% of the vote. A massive majority of 82.5% of the electorate do not support him or his political ideals. He does not therefore represent Sweden or the ‘Swedish people’. And he certainly does not represent me. I absolutely and unequivocally reject him and condemn his beliefs and actions.

The Swedish Democrats claim to be patriots – true lovers of Sweden. What they have actually done with this action is drag Sweden’s good name down into the gutter with them. Shame on them.

And you, dear Swede, does this action represent you? If not, I ask you to react strongly and without hesitation.

Swedish politics for the uninitiated

For those of you unfamiliar with the Swedish political system, here is a quick crash course.

Sweden is governed by a democratically elected government, led by a Prime Minister. Legislation is proposed by the government and decided by a multi-party parliament. The system of election to parliament is one of proportional representation. This means that there are several smaller parties, and sometimes they end up holding the balance of power. To hold one of the parliament’s 349 seats, parties must have a minimum of 4% of the vote. This barrier was put in place to prevent very small parties getting in.

Every four years, in September, a General Election is held in Sweden. At the same time, elections for the 290 local council authorities, and 20 county authorities are held. Sweden had a 87.18% voter turn-out in the last election in 2018, which shows a strong democratic interest from the electorate.

There are currently 8 parties in the Swedish Parliament. In the last election, the Social Democrats (left of center) gained the largest percentage of the vote – 28.26%. The next largest party was the Moderate (Conservative) party with 19.84%. Since proportional representation is the method, no single party receives their own mandate in Swedish politics. This means a process of discussion, negotiating and wheeling-dealing with smaller parties is required to gain majority, come over 50% and to gain a position of government.

Sweden’s current government took a very long time to finalise. After each general election, the Speaker of the House announces the preliminary Prime Minister, initially the leader of the party with the most votes. This person then has the task of forming a government and getting it passed through parliament. After the last election, the government was finally approved after an enormous 129 days of negotiation. It is a minority government led by the Social Democrats and containing the Greens (4.41%). It is supported by 3 opposition parties – the Left Party (8%), the Center Party (8.61%) and the Liberals (5.49%). This is a very unusual coalition which has shuffled around the political map and brought together parties with many opposing views. Some people think of it as an unholy and unsustainable grouping. However, despite their different political ideologies, this middle-ground alliance are united in one ambition – keeping the right-wing nationalistic party Sweden Democrats (17.53%) out of government.

It remains to be seen how long this alliance will hold, and indeed what will happen in the next election in 2 years time. It seems that Sweden might be caught in the jaws of political populism. In a recent opinion poll, the nationalists Sweden Democrats came out as number 1.

So is Sweden in a conservative renaissance – will the next coalition government be conservative-right wing?

Time will tell.