(Not quite so) Liberal Sweden

Sweden is trendy & liberal, Estonia’s a grey former communist state and who knows much about Finland?  But on a recent trip, many of these pre-conceptions were challenged.  Our ideas about a country are, increasingly, influenced by government  marketing campaigns or ‘Nation Branding’.  So, following a recent tour around the Baltic Sea, I’m reflecting on my travels – and whether they matched the brand or not.   Following time (& reflections on) Helsinki and Estonia, in this final part, I stop in to Stockholm. 

I’ve belonged to an online group called “Gay & Lesbian Stockholm” for some time, in anticipation of a trip to the Swedish capital.  It pushes an image of  a progressive, welcoming country no matter what the gender (or race, nationality etc, for that matter) of the person you snuggle up to at night.  Sweden – like many of the Scandinavian countries – has a reputation for being socially liberal with progressive politics in the popular imagination.  But sometimes that image of country – that branding – gives an inaccurate view of the country which, to a small extent, was my experience of a couple of days in the Swedish capital.

Gamla Stan, Stockholm

That said, the first impressions of this capital and the country it presides over were positive and very ‘on-message’.  A new, high-speed train whisked us in minutes from airport to city centre with an interior more akin to a front room than a commuter train.  It came with a high ticket price but good infrastructure comes at cost – Swedes seem happy to pay if that means things work.  As we walked from station to hostel, the streets were clean, the shops were stylish and everything seemed design-led with wood, trendy fixtures and smart people everywhere you looked.

In the sunshine, we walked across the city, past fantastic medieval streets, through the trendy area of Gamla Stan and ended up on the banks of the river at Hornstull.  As we sat in a bar, two new fathers appeared with their baby, as if just to re-inforce the messages I had read on the “Gay & Lesbian Stockholm” forum.  So far, so perfect.

Water front drinks in Stockholm

Yet, the reality of the city started to become clearer as we moved from the elegant if gentrified centre to the smart but more “real” suburbs.  The design became a little less sharp, the grafitti a little more common.  The beer prices remained astonishingly high.  In a waterside park, there were a few men sitting drinking, as if the expensive drinks had forced them to the darker corners of town rather than in to abstinence.

As we walked back to our hostel, crossing the star-lit bridges we came across a drunk man ranting under the motorway bridge.  A few paces on, we walked passed a cold, homeless man in a doorway.  We passed a middle-eastern family – possibly newly arrived in Sweden – bedding down their children by the station.  Now none of this is unusual – in my home city of Manchester, the same groups can be seen but what made these sightings more striking was the wealth that was around them.  Just as in the UK, there is no need for such poverty but society does not seem to be handling it at all.  This seems to fly in the face of the perceived caring, socially aware image that Sweden is portraying in its marketing.

However, the reality is a little more complex than that with some considering the Social Democratic model as having failed following the 1992 recession[3] which led to membership of the European Union.  And the EU is a project which the Swedes remain sceptical about[1], have remained outside the Euro and voiced concern  about immigration[2] when voting in recent elections.  Governments have leaned as often to the right as to the left which led me to question before I arrived whether Sweden was as liberal as it made out.  Witnessing the few examples of poverty on the capital’s streets, made me further question the liberal realities of Sweden.

Vasa Museum

The following morning, a trip to the museum island offered up further perspectives on Swedish identity – perspectives that the national tourist board would be pleased for us to see.  The Vasa Museum is worth a visit just to see the majesty of a 17th Century ship and provides a good introduction to Swedish military and naval history.  The ship is beautifully presented and the short introductory film helps put everything in context.  Not only does this re-inforce the image of Sweden as an historic power but also tells us something of the current.  The large amount of research which went in to the raising of the shift and its preservation since the 1970s is coupled with profiles of the current scientists working on the history and science behind the ship, reminding the international visitors that Sweden remains at the edge of scientific endeavour.

Down the road is the ABBA museum which is a giddy reminder of one of Sweden’s biggest exports: pop music.  There is a whirlwind introduction to the group including how it formed though, disappointingly, later exhibits focussed more on singing/dancing along when I would have enjoyed a little more on the songs and albums which made the band a success.  However, the museum also focuses on the national success at Eurovision and the Swedish Hall of Fame for pop music.  But, looking a bit more deeply, it seemed that Swedish pop music was praised as much for its marketing successes as for its liberal creativity.  In some ways, the success of Swedish pop music has been the country’s adoption of a neo-liberal market as much as nurturing good song writing.

It would be easy to overblow the problems or neo-liberal market I saw in Stockholm and then unfairly conclude that the Nation Branding that Sweden has engaged in is false: I saw far more examples of how Sweden lived up to its socially liberal, generous and progressive attitudes.  However, as with all the countries on this tour around the Baltic sea, the branding/marketing is enough to bring you in to the country, to whet your travelling appetite but the reality will be different, more nuanced and more complex.

But learning the reality of a country and its people is the reason we travel, rather than just reading the marketing brochures.



I have a series of travel tips including recommended books & podcasts in a separate post on Travel Tips: Stockholm.

[1] Fägersten, B. (2016) Sweden and the UK’s deal: For Swedes, the real drama is yet to come.  LSE EUROPP Blog, URL: http://bit.ly/1VBIj5c

[2] Gabinus, V. (2016) Sweden & Swedes.  Presentation to new international students at the University of Gothenburg, URL: http://utbildning.gu.se/digitalAssets/1584/1584478_sweden-and-swedes.pdf

[3] Waever, O. (1992) Nordic Nostalgia: Northern Europe after the Cold War.  International Affairs.  68(1), pp.77-102

[First Published 21/01/17, Updated 28/04/19]


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