In a previous article, “Canada’s Voters Make it a World Leader Overnight” I mentioned the “Law of Natural Constituency” in relation to political parties. This law also applies to whole countries. You can’t run Italy as if it is Estonia, or vice versa. Now, however, the most unlikely of countries are putting this law to the test, apparently not realising that, like the market, it inevitably beats everyone in the long run.
Ask any Swede or Dane what their countries are like and they won’t talk about the weather or the food. They distinguish their homelands from others by saying how liberal and tolerant they are. This concept is so much part of the culture of these countries that even if they seem to be behaving in the opposite way, this must somehow be a manifestation of tolerance.
For example, both these countries are happy to spout the standard Western diplomatic line in countries they want to exploit, insisting that corrupt dictatorships in Central Asia must be democracies just because they say so. They do this because it is assumed that any lie, however obvious, must be for the greater good of a tolerant, humane world or these countries wouldn’t tell it. It suits everyone to think this way, no one questions it, so the truth doesn’t come into the equation.
But now the parliaments of both Sweden and Denmark are responding to the refugee crisis they helped create by such behaviour by proposing the sort of clampdowns long advocated in the countries they look down on. They want asylum seekers to demonstrate they have the means to stay in their countries independently before entering them, and are intending to stop vehicles at the borders and check this on the spot. They are also proposing to deport thousands of their existing asylum seekers, despite the fact that asylum decisions must be made on the basis of the situation in the country the asylum seeker is fleeing from, not that in the receiving country.
Now the self-proclaimed good guys are desperate to make themselves the bad guys. They can no longer tolerate being out of step with countries where the same measures have been advocated, or taken, for a long time. It is a price they feel they have to pay to be part of the Western club. Whether they will want to pay this price when its real cost to themselves becomes clear remains to be seen.
Familiar refrains with all the wrong notes
The rhetoric being used to justify this radical change of national identity has been used in all the wealthier Western countries. Sweden and Denmark are trying to make out that they are seen as “soft touches”, and that as asylum seekers pass through several safe countries before getting there they should become a burden on those countries if they have a genuine need instead of trying to live off the fat of the land in Scandinavia.
Once in a while, refugee agencies bother to research where asylum seekers come from and what their circumstances there were. It is true that people can earn more doing the dirtiest jobs in the West than doing the most prestigious ones in many developing countries. But despite that, every study which has been made shows that those who come to the West from conflict regions elsewhere were better off at home, in real terms, than they now are living on welfare in the West. Those who would be better off can’t get out, becoming Internally Displaced Persons who can only dream of either a better life or ongoing safety in the West.
Nevertheless this idea persists. About twelve years ago the UK government prevented asylum seekers claiming benefits, giving them vouchers, which they had to spend in particular stores, instead. Within a few weeks the number of recorded asylum seekers plummeted. The government then shouted from the rooftops that people were only coming to the UK because they thought they could scrounge, and this proved it.
Within a few more weeks however the number of asylum applications in the UK not only went up again, but was higher than ever before. This policy utterly failed in its stated aim, stopping people from claiming asylum in the UK. But the government persisted with it because on the surface it made sense, just as men with red flags walking in front of cars to reduce their speed also made sense once upon a time.
The Swedes and Danes are also making the assumption a lot of other Western countries made long before – that refugee, and particularly Moslem refugee, equals terrorist. It is for the safety of the local population that these people must be kept out, we are being told.
It is however a fact that Sweden and Denmark, like all other Western countries, have far more Moslems already living amongst them than they would be able to take in as refugees, and that terrorist outrages are invariably perpetrated by people other than newly-arrived asylum seekers. Given what we all see on the news, it is also far more likely that an asylum seeker is fleeing Islamic terrorism, whoever is sponsoring it, rather than wanting to perpetrate it.
There is always, of course, the chance that some of those fleeing are not who they say they are and have destructive intentions. However, that same chance exists anywhere, with everyone. When the Native Americans (Red Indians) were progressively dispossessed and massacred by the illegal white settlers who run the USA now, who were the ISIS of their day, one of the justifications given for this was that there were “murderers” amongst these “uncivilised” people. This was undoubtedly true, but it was also the case that just as many white men had committed murders, and these individuals, themselves refugees or economic migrants, were recruited to help the country, not executed or sent back to where they came from for committing these murders.
They would say that
It is not entirely the fault of Sweden and Denmark that they are now trying to be the opposite of what they think they are. Their historic tolerance has blinded them to so much that they have now been caught in a trap, which other countries are desperately willing to spring to justify themselves and take these good guys down a peg or two.
Europe as a whole has seen a progressive rise in anti-establishment parties. The common complaint of such parties is that the established ones are too “liberal”, too “politically correct”, and out of touch with the man in the street. Too much like Sweden and Denmark are supposed to be, in other words. So whether they like it or not, these countries have had an image imposed upon them, and to defend themselves, they have had to go along with it.
Swedish politics is polarised between the centre-left, basically the Social Democrats and a smattering of Greens, and the centre-right, an informal alliance known as the “bourgeois parties”. Sweden’s Liberal party, the Folkpartiet, was once the dominant force in the centre-right, though almost always in opposition. But it was not a pro-business, anti-worker party: it advocated an extensive but more voluntary welfare programme, as opposed to the state-imposed welfare system of the Social Democrats, which became increasingly conservative over time as such systems always do.
When the informal centre-right coalition started to actually win elections, from the 1970s onwards, the Swedish liberals lost their status as leaders of that coalition to the conservatives, known as the Moderate Party, of which all that needs to be said is that Carl Bildt is a member. It therefore had to find a new constituency to regain its position, a task made more urgent by the fact that it was now in government alongside its traditional allies and could actually get things done.
It soon found that now the conservative Moderates were the faces of the right the contrary Social Democrats were seen as the real home of liberals. So to survive at all it became a critic of the Moderates from the right, advocating increased jail sentences, restricted immigration, restricted unemployment benefits etcetera. This drove away many of its own activists because they didn’t think their party was liberal anymore. But they did back some votes, because they were the liberals, from liberal Sweden, so these ideas had to be liberal really, didn’t they?
Eventually the Swedish Democrats, the local version of the obnoxious far right, emerged to take away this new “liberal” vote. But this anti-immigrant party has a different slant to its European counterparts. Sweden’s streets and trains are full of beggars who are not blond haired, blue eyed Vikings. The Swedish Democrat approach is, “the more we help these people, the worse off they seem to be. We should stop supporting foreigners precisely so we can create a country where they don’t have to beg”.
This is the natural development of the liberal views Swedes still believe they hold, once they have started going in the direction the Swedish liberals, who once held them more strongly than anyone, took them. They are not a contradiction of the Swedish liberal tradition but a refocusing of it, according to those who think this way. Furthermore, such views have the glamour of being new and trendy in Sweden. So Swedes think that whatever they do they will remain liberal, because both they and the rest of the world have been saying for so long that Swedes can’t be anything else.
Legends that stay on the page
Sweden cannot actually deport the 80,000 asylum seekers it is intending to. This would require its various government agencies actually working together, and actually having an interest in doing something. This has never happened before, it won’t now.
In a world which talks increasingly about “joined-up government” Sweden maintains a disturbing amateurism in which few people know the laws they are obliged to administer, few are able to talk to colleagues in another office and even fewer care. As long as everything remains pretty much as it was when they got up in the morning everyone feels they have fulfilled their obligations.
The Swedish public services do not have the culture of cynicism which has infiltrated their counterparts in some other countries. It is a country of rigid regulations which have created black markets in everything – housing, employment, tax payments, transport revenues etcetera. These are known about and effectively indulged by the responsible public bodies, as no one believes in the regulations anyway and everyone is happy at the end of the day.
Swedish police stations advertise themselves on Facebook like night clubs. You can even write reviews about them. Those who encounter the police often complain that they are very strict about little things and ignore the big issues, but this is largely because they do not have much to do. They have to occupy their time with paperwork-inducing activity to justify their jobs, and big issues are too disruptive to too many people to address, when there is any need.
Similarly there is no Protestant Work Ethic in Sweden, despite its secularised Lutheranism. People do their jobs to get paid and then employ their mates, not for some higher purpose. Deporting people is too much like a cause for too many Swedes to engage with, even if they are in the minority who accept the reasons for it. Those who will have to implement the deportations will not feel that they are being better servants of the state by doing so, as they already have all they want from the almighty System, there is no need to disrupt their lives by offering more.
There is no substitute for the law
All the current anti-asylum seeker drive in both Sweden and Denmark will achieve is make Swedes and Danes wonder what sort of country they live in. They will begin to wonder, as they are already doing, when the values they see as their own were jettisoned for someone else’s, and how they got this far without seeing they were someone else’s.
Some may still think the illiberal sentiments behind these policies are part of their liberal traditions, but that will simply make them question their consequences more. If you present yourself as anti-liberal, the worse things are for your victims, the bigger you seem in your own eyes. When what you see in front of you is the opposite of what you think you should be creating, you eventually doubt your own values, as the UK’s Liberal Democrat supporters discovered during its coalition with the Conservatives.
In such times of doubt people rush to a more pleasant interpretation of such values, the one Swedes and Danes have been brought up with, rather than go through the pain of giving them up. All they will give up is those who got them to where they are, the Thatchers and Blairs and Harpers and Nick Cleggs of this world. Then they will quietly return to more liberal ways, and we will all wait for the next almighty crash in a country which thought it could defy the Law of Natural Constituency with impunity.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.