IN THIS interview with Per Unckel, Member of the Swedish Parliament, we update our readers on social and political problems facing northern Europe, and Sweden in particular.
Some Scandinavian countries have a reputation for having a high suicide rate. Why is the suicide rate so high in such well-to-do countries as Sweden, Denmark and Finland? And why do so many young people commit suicide? A part of the explanation is the kind of social situation our time of welfare society has come into — people having fairly good living standards from a material point of view but with difficulties with their human or social relations. A lot of people in our kind of countries are awfully lonesome, which contributes to the suicide rate and causes misuse of drugs and alcohol. Quite a few very young people are committing suicide — even children — which underlines that there is something wrong with our social relations. When it comes to small kids thinking about these things, it's necessary to point out that the family situation could be much better than it is in this country from a strictly social and humanitarian point of view.
During the '60s and '70s, Sweden legalized the sale of "hard" pornographic literature. Now in the '80s various Western newspapers show that some Swedish psychologists regret the legalizing of the sale of sex-oriented literature. Would you comment? The '60s tendency was in my opinion too strong because it damaged the kind of values that a country needs in order to be able to stand all kinds of difficulties. It broke down the former values that people of this country had in common. However, one of the most basic rights in a free and open society is the right to publish whatever you want. I am from that point of view always very anxious to defend also things that people dislike. If you hesitate in defending even things you disagree with, you might end up with the state or somebody else forbidding things that are truly precious in society.
Many Scandinavian countries have a solid reputation for setting the pace in terms of social advancement. You've wanted to bring prosperity to your citizens in every corner of the land, and you've tried very hard to make it easier in Sweden for people who are underprivileged. Are you basically satisfied with the results of your social program? What about the monetary cost? Is it a greater burden than the government had anticipated? This country has made one basic mistake in building welfare. Let me explain it in terms of the difference between a welfare society and a welfare state. In my definition Sweden is a welfare state, and that is our problem, because welfare, when it comes to material goods and social relations, comes from, to a large extent, by and through the State. That means that when we are entering into a period with economic difficulties, this kind of welfare state is vulnerable. When we run out of money we run out of all the things that a welfare state is supposed to provide. On the other hand Sweden should have, instead, tried to build a welfare society where all the different kinds of goods that come from the State are just one part of it. We wouldn't have been as vulnerable today as we are, and we probably wouldn't have run into the kind of social relations problem that we discussed before. Sweden has to change its collective course — the welfare state course that we have followed so long.
Unlike Norway, Finland and Denmark, Sweden managed to remain neutral in both world wars. There hasn't been a war in Sweden for well over 150 years. Norway and Denmark achieved neutrality only in the Great War (1914-1918). Since I have been touring Scandinavia, I have heard of some Norwegian resentment about Swedish neutrality during World War II, in spite of the fact that the Swedish people did provide a refuge for the Danish and the Norwegian people during World War II to train militarily for whenever liberation would come. Could you comment on this so-called Norwegian resentment and secondly on neutrality as a whole? Is. neutrality practical in this nuclear world we live in today? One could argue that the policy of neutrality is not a very heroic position to take. It's obvious that quite a few in Denmark and Norway are grateful for the possibility the Swedish neutrality gave them during World War II. On the other hand it's obvious that quite a few in Norway and Denmark still have uneasy feelings when it comes to Sweden letting the Germans pass through from Denmark to Norway. So there are pros and cons when it comes to Swedish behavior during World War II. When you look at the neutrality policy today I think one has to remind oneself of a few things. One is that Swedish neutrality is a fact of life and is something that both the superpowers have adjusted to. Any change in that policy will create difficulties. On its own merits stability in the northern part of Europe is better preserved by Sweden being a neutral country. That means that we have a northern neutral zone between the NATO countries and the Warsaw Pact countries, which has proved itself during the past 20 years to be useful. So there, in the balance, even if the policy of neutrality is, as I said, not very heroic, I think it is useful not only to the Swedes but to the entire northern European area.
Sweden has maintained a fairly strong standing army and civil defense force since the time of World War II. She has also sent her diplomats to the four corners of the earth as potential peacemakers and international civil servants. What do you think Sweden has contributed to the world in this area of peacemaking? Without a doubt the policy of neutrality is from' a purely economic point of view a very costly policy. But we cannot hope for help from anybody else. If somebody decides not to respect the Swedish policy of neutrality, we must know that we can defend ourselves without help from anybody abroad. That is the reason why Sweden needs to have a defense which is stronger than a comparable country when it comes to size of population. The policy of neutrality is a major reason for Sweden's possibility to act internationally as peacemaker or mediator — though one should not overestimate the potentiality of a small country to do such things. Whether you can create peace in a particular region is to some extent dependent on mediation efforts, but basically it depends on more basic reasons than that.
"Swedish neutrality is a fact of life and is something that both the superpowers have adjusted to... stability in the northern part of Europe is better preserved by Sweden being a neutral country." — Per Unckel
Sweden's major international achievements are within that framework. I hesitate to pick one specific activity save our readiness to stand behind the world organization to do what we can, even if it's small, to make the world organization a platform for communication. And too, when the Secretary General of the U.N. so asks, be ready even to send troops to areas where the world organization thinks they will be useful. This general attitude and interest in the United Nations is our major achievement.
There has been political, economic, social and cultural cooperation between Scandinavian countries, i.e. a common set of Nordic values. Are you satisfied with the progress in economic and social relations between Scandinavian countries? If you compare the integration in the Nordic area with the integration in other areas of the world, I think one has to be satisfied. Peoples in this part of Europe are very close to each other, and we have entered into a phase in Nordic cooperation where quite a few of the issues are being dealt with in a very informal way. That is the sign that relations have matured. On the other hand if you look upon the Nordic integration from the point of view of your own wishes and your own visions, my vision is for still closer cooperation. Not the least in the economic field where these countries are seen, one by one, too small to be a major factor in the world economy. But together we are quite a substantial market and have access to quite 'extensive knowledge, which could be used way more effectively than it is at present. There is much more to do even if we are far ahead of quite a few other regions in the world.
I met a Swedish businessman on. the train last night with business connections around the world. He said Sweden is essentially a capitalist country. Perhaps it has an unusual blend of socialism mixed with it, but would you say that that's true in spite of its socialist reputation? That is a more difficult question than you might realize. If you look upon Sweden from a classic ideological point of view such as the share of state ownership, it is without doubt a capitalist country. The vast majority of Swedish firms are owned by private persons. If on the other hand you look at Sweden from the point of view of how much does the government control in practice, you might come to a different conclusion. Look at the rate of taxation. Look at the regulation machinery which affects individuals and firms. You will probably find that Sweden has come quite a way in my opinion down the socialistic way. You might also have seen that we have right now a quite vivid discussion in this country about a proposal from the Social Democrats to introduce funds with the aim of changing the ownership strategy from private persons over to the trade unions. And even if that doesn't exactly go along with the socialist schoolbook, it is In practical terms the same thing. So to summarize, Sweden in practice is a collective socialistic country even if we still have quite a share of private ownership.
What special problems do you anticipate for Sweden as we move into the midst of the '80s and on into the '90s? I am personally convinced that Sweden will change paths because this kind of welfare state is, as we discussed earlier, slowly breaking apart. On the social relations and economic side, the quite huge problems that Sweden is facing right now are to a great extent caused by this welfare state idea. We have taken away a lot of the need for private initiative. You take that away and the dynamics in the economy will slowly go away. So in my opinion, without doubt we will change paths and try to develop the welfare society instead to where we ask people — individual people, families — to take part, not just be the spectators of a process with other groups. This changing of strategy for the entire society will be the great thing that will dominate Swedish debate for 10, 15 years. And if you come back in 15 years you will probably find a quite different Sweden, a more personal Sweden than we have today — with less suicides.