Book review: "My way and my choices" (Min väg mina val) by Göran Persson 2007, Swedish Prime Minister 1996-2006.
Only one year after his resignation as prime minister, Göran Persson comes out with his memoires. The book is easy to follow, interesting and sometimes very funny. But it also shows Persson´s difficulty in seeing the slightest goodness in his opponents.
Göran Persson in the 2006 electoral campaign (wikipedia commons)
Poor but happy childhood
He starts the book with a chapter about his childhood. This was quite interesting. Göran Persson grew up in the small city of Vingåker in Södermanland, a province south-west of Stockholm. The economic situation for the family was tough with five children living in a small house. His father was a construction worker and his mother house-wife. He describes his mother as the most political outspoken person of his parents and that he got much of his inspiration from her.
Two things strike me as interesting but perhaps not so surprising when he describes his childhood. The first is that the family´s leaning to the worker´s movement was so obvious that they did not even discuss what party to vote for, even if they were not party members. Persson was literarily born into the social democratic party. This is telling of the social democratic history. There was not much room for self-reflection among those who was fostered by social democratic parents. It was not a matter of choosing ideology but to be loyal to the movement.
The second thing is more about Persson´s own political leanings. He describes with strong emotion his early affection to the church and its ability put people together. This explains the conservative profile in his visions in his later career. He was against the decision to separate the church form the state in 2000. He saw the church as an institution that could keep the Swedish people together in a spiritual way. His dream of a Swedish "folkhem" had indeed a conservative touch rather than socialist.
His authoritarian leader-ship style could also be connected to his ideal view on the church. He preferred the old-fashion church-service where the church is clean from decorations and the priest, dressed in black, holds a strong and clear (authoritarian) sermon which the people listen to and understand. It is not surprising that Persson later has said that he wanted to become a priest when he was a child. His image as the stern but loving father of the nation is telling. If he was not "born into" the social democratic party he could as well have joined the Christian democrats.
Minister of finance 1994-1996
Persson spend much energy in explaining how he managed to put forward the drastic budget reforms in 1994. Sweden´s economy was still in a bad shape after the major crises 1992. In this part he gives much credit to his chief, Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, who gave him full backing and free space to shape the drastic measures.
His way of explaining how he resonates is quite easy to agree with. He writes that a finance minister should not be an expert on economics, but on building a majority for his budget. He has also a way of seeing economics which i find sympathetic. He writes that he learned early in life that you should not buy anything you cannot afford. He translated this into the Swedish economy. To spend on welfare, we must first pay our debts!
He also wrote a book during that time under the title: The one who is in debt is not free". This "down-to-earth" reasoning about economics combined with his authoritarian style helped him to implement an extremely tough budget reform.
Persson praises the cooperation with the centre party (farmer´s party) during the economic crisis. The co-operation was according to him built on trust and worked well. It is also not difficult to see some chemistry between the down-to-earth economic reasoning Persson and the practical tradition within the centre party.
Prime minister 1996-2006
Persson succeeded Ingvar Carlsson as Prime minister in 1996. In this new role he was not as comfortable as he felt as finance minister. He was also increasingly unpopular within the social democratic party. But he describes how he was determined to continue with the tough budget measures and at the same time push down the unemployment.
After the elections 1998 the social democrats was weakened but could still form a one-party minority government. Here Persson´s talent for catching the moment is astonishing. The Christian democrats did a very good election result and had the chance of taking initiative to form a government with other parties. But their party leader Alf Svensson remained passive after the result. At the same time the party leader of the greens, Birger Schlaug said to the media that he would not co-operate with the Christian democrats.
Quickly Persson seized the moment and went public saying "We will continue to govern". This caused much irritation since the social democrats had made their poorest election result in sixty years. But Persson had calculated correctly. There was no other coalition possible.
It is interesting to read about Persson´s visions in the book. During his period he was a strong driving force in turning Sweden to a green sustainable society. He clothed that project with building a "Green folkhem". This is one the things I admire in his policies. Long term decisions were made to reshape the whole Swedish society to be more energy-efficient and less polluting. And this was before the debate on climate change became a big issue.
He started also a committee which I found very wise. It´s mission was to build a strategy for making Sweden oil-independent before 2020. Persson argues in economic, environmental and security terms that this is important and I agree! This committee´s proposal is now under consideration in the new government.
Some funny anecdotes
Persson also delivers some entertainment in the book. His story about a conflict with the Finnish PM Paavo Lipponen is written in a way that could make anyone burst out in laughter.
The two prime ministers had different views on the EU-enlargement. After a debate Persson was in the queue to the toilet and Lipponen was in front of him. He describes how the Finish prime minister turns to him and with his large body and fixed eyes turned his wrath against Persson saying slowly: "You should watch out!" Persson was saved by the bell when Nelson Mandela comes out form the toilet in a good mood and saluting them both. The tension was softened.
Another really funny part is Persson´s description of when President Boris Yeltsin made a state-visit to Sweden. Yeltsin was literary suffering from a sickness and was confused during the whole meeting.
Except publicly stating that Russia would reduce the nuclear arsenal without consulting his advisors Yeltsin had an interesting negotiation with Persson.
Here Yeltsin said according to Persson: - You should build a gas-pipeline through Sweden for Russian gas. Persson said no, and then Yeltsin stood up and shouted - Build the pipeline! Then Persson stood up and put his face very close to Yeltsin´s and said - I am in charge in this country. Yeltsin was clearly amused by this and started to shout again.
No ability to understand the opponents
The sad thing with this book is Persson´s complete inability to see the possibility that his opponents can have a good purpose with their decisions and policies.
For example he felt that the Greens were "disloyal" after the elections 2002 when they started negotiations with centre-right parties for a coalition-government. This despite that Persson knew that the social democratic negotiation team had been extremely arrogant to the greens in the first negotiation round. It is seemingly not in Persson´s world view that the social democrats would have to give in to the Greens and form a coalition government.
Another example is his description of the Swedish Conservative party (Moderaterna). Their policies are according to him cynical because it will hit the poor and the sick people. It is not within Persson´s world view that Moderaterna thinks that these measures will in the long run be good for these people providing more jobs.
Except for these somehow depressing parts of the book, it is really entertaining and well-written. It also gives an insight in how politicians think both in their visions and in their strategies.