The rise of conservative ideas in Sweden

Chronicles/analysis | 2010-03-09
During the last years and even more the last weeks, a debate about conservatism and mainly among conservatives has evolved in Sweden. It may seem that the revival of conservatism is somehow odd, since the cultural and political debate in Sweden is mainly going on between different kind of liberals, (social liberals and classical liberals for example) and different kind of socialists. Conservative views have been almost non-existent or marginalized in the central debates.

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But nevertheless, now there is a surge for conservative debating in different forums. In Svenska Dagbladet the debate started when the author and former chief editor at Axess, Erik Wallrup, claimed that there is a lack of intellectual conservative debate in Sweden. His opinion was criticized by some of the debaters, but also acclaimed by others. Literature and music critic in Svenska Dagbladet Magnus Eriksson wanted conservatives to have other, more classical, sources of inspiration such as Aristotele, Dostojevskij and Heidegger.

Their ignorance of the history of ideas otherwise made them easy victims for leftist attacks. Lennart Berndtson, lecturer in history at the University of Roskilde, meant that some ideas and opinions of the old conservatives are nowadays paradoxically more frequent among the leftists. Some parts of the left are now ardent supporters of nationalism and protectionism whereas they are united in their resistance towards global capitalism. Furthermore they are critical towards ideas of reason and universal values in their defense of postmodernism and have many other ideas that are not in accordance with the Enlightenment tradition. So, in some aspects left and right has changed position in the debate.

But there also seems to be room for a revitalized conservatism in Sweden. One of the non-socialist parties in Sweden, the Christian Democrats, has tried to approach more conservative positions during the last year. This party had its roots in a movement against the Swedish government's decision in 1963 to remove religious education from the elementary school and make the education more secular and less tied to Christianity. During the decades this party has lowered its profile in religious issues. The former conservative stance on abortion and the sanctity of life has been moderated substantially and also the resistance towards gay rights in Sweden.

Nowadays a more non-religious conservative stance seems to have influenced the Christian Democrats. When party leader Göran Hägglund called the majority of Swedes the “reality people” ("verklighetens folk"), his comment seemed to be mainly aimed at an alleged leftist and radical cultural elite. An elite that wanted to dictate the life of others, tear down traditional values and force onto them a socialist and (radically) feminist agenda. This stance has been interpreted as an attempt to reach out to a more “everyday conservative” community. It may however be argued that this rejection of elites and rejection of paternalism, for example towards parents that want to foster their children without quota of parental leave, is as much classically liberal as it is conservative.

However, strong forces inside the Christian Democratic Youth are active to promote a more conservative agenda, also in issues like national souverenity versus EU-federalism, harder punishment against criminals and protection for the traditional family and family values. Ideologically this is a clearer stance and it also partly relates to the more general surge for the conservative debate in Sweden. If they can influence their parent party is however not clear.

Nevertheless, there is a deeply rooted skepticism for conservatism, in its tradition form, in Sweden. Partly because of the debating monopoly of the liberals and socialists. Former conservative MP Anders Björck once mentioned that the Swedish right suffered from cowardice in traditional conservative issues. Conservatives, also from his own party, avoided or refused to engage in a confrontation in some issues and thereby left the playing field open to radicals and socialists, not least after 1968. Therefore, this emerging debate in both ideology and concrete political questions is something that we are not really used to in Sweden.

But there is another side of this issue. Sweden is namely one of the most secular and non-traditional countries in the world. In the global survey World Value Survey Sweden is at the top in both measured dimensions. The first is the Traditional/Secular-rational values dimension which reflects the contrast between societies in which religion and traditions is very important and those in which it is not. The second is the Self-expression indicator where the Swedish figures give high priority to issues like tolerance of diversity for example tolerance of out groups, including foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality. This may also explain why conservative ideas have a hard time to grow in Sweden. There may have been neither fertile soil nor enough water. The question is whether the climate for conservative ideas really is about to change.

Henrik Lindberg,  Researcher at The Ratio Institute


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