Conducted, Translated and Introduced by Anna Paterson
This article appeared in the 2011:1 issue.
Henrik Berggren’s account of Olof Palme and his times – ‘A Wonderful Time Ahead’ (Underbara dagar framför oss, Norstedts 2010) – was given the reception every author dreams of. The critics were united in their admiration: this work was ‘essential’, ‘brilliant’, ‘cool and luminous’; ‘well argued, multi-faceted and beautifully written’… At the Gothenburg Book Fair in September 2010, Berggren was constantly on show, performing in panels and being interviewed more often than seemed endurable.
Underbara dagar framför oss is a well-researched ‘life’ of an unusually attractive and active politician, unusually (for Sweden) influential internationally as well as nationally. More than that, Berggren’s writing scans, slice by detailed slice, culture and politics from the 1930s to the mid-80s. Especially given all that excitement around the book launch, I was very grateful to be granted an interview with the author. My general idea was to focus on aspects of the Palme story that would commend the book to a wide readership abroad. Yes, ‘commend it’, because I happily joined the choir of praise and hope to add a few grace notes of my own. In SBR, my own response to the book is properly relegated to my review; here, the story is the writer’s own reflections on and around some of the aspects of his work.
Henrik Berggren’s book is lucid, essential reading about the period in general and about two big issues in particular. Both are closely associated with Palme: The process of creating a comprehensive welfare system based on taxation is still important in a world which has seen the idea of the strong but benign state taken apart in so many different ways. The practice, as well as theory, of ‘an ethical foreign policy’ also represents a continuing challenge both to small and/or unaligned countries and to strong states which would prefer to act without significant opposition within their spheres of influence.
Underbara dagar framför oss is also a study of an interesting man. Olof Palme was expensively and excellently educated, and had the tastes and inclinations of an intellectual, but also wanted, almost instinctively, the kind of immediate grip on power to change society which intellectuals rarely come anywhere near. From his political power base – first as a political activist, then as an MP with ministerial experience and, later, as leader of the dominant Social Democratic Party with two long spells as Prime Minister – he influenced internal and foreign policy during almost thirty years of gradual but deepgoing transition.
Sweden was ready for such change by the late 50s: the welfare system, which had gained momentum in the 1920s and 30s, was about to start expanding. Meanwhile, the post-war international stage offered new opportunities for small states to be heard. Sweden’s traditionally neutral stance was, on the whole, an asset, despite the nervous sensitivities that had proliferated in the wake of its reluctant collaboration with Nazi Germany.
From British point of view, Palme’s political profile looks oddly familiar: A clever, charming man of good family, with a legal training and left-wing instincts; an effective politician’s politician, pragmatic when required; an enlightened thinker on subjects such as education, female emancipation and other ethical/moral issues, at least if opportune at the time. Also, a conviction-based operator – in Palme’s case, his belief in scientific method and technological advance was near-evangelical – who preferred to keep his own counsel, had a taste for secrecy as well as for personal power, and a capacity for arousing dislike, suspicion and even hatred to a degree which in retrospect seems almost mysterious.
Anna Paterson: Reading around about Palme, I was struck by how hated he became, especially during his second spell as Prime Minister. Among British PMs, Tony Blair is a strong contender for ‘most hated’ – it’s a close-run race, of course. Why did Palme become so detested?
Henrik Berggren: The hatred of Palme was a diffuse phenomenon. I think it had at least three different backgrounds. He was identified with the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which had been around for a long time – and, increasingly, people felt it had been too long. The SDP remained irritatingly dominant at a time when it was widely thought to have done its job. Social security, including health insurance, had been a reality for most citizens since the late 50s, so why should the socialists hang on to power? Also, capitalism was turning out to be too successful to be ignored, let alone derided. Palme himself actually agreed – he had read his Galbraith and was very keen on the expanding economic and technological options in Sweden’s newly ‘affluent society’.
Alongside this amorphous grouping of the generally suspicious, there was another, tighter faction of likely Palme-haters among instinctive conservatives, people like farmers and businessmen, who felt they had been part of ‘the squeezed middle’ for long enough. In the past, they had been squashed by an elite made up of senior bureaucrats and members of the wealthy upper class – people like Palme’s own family – only to find themselves now subjected to working class rule, in the shape of trade union bosses and successive Social Democratic governments. Then again, to these people, the combination of Palme’s privileged origins and career as a socialist leader seemed odd, bordering on treacherous.
The third category included people who reacted to specific aspects of the personality of our man. They typically shared both the national preference for consensus and dislike of loud argument. If arriving at agreements is seen as virtuous in Sweden, being different – worse, being opinionated about it – can be a source of friction. The ever-present undercurrent of feeling that ‘folk shouldn’t get above themselves’ is said to be a Scandinavian ‘law’ (jantelagen) and is laced with envy as well as approval of conformity.
Sure, Palme’s aggressive instincts and self-assurance could be unattractive. He was a persuasive speechmaker, but as a debater he was over-keen to win. Also, for all his charm and social ease, there were those he didn’t ‘get’. He felt out of his depth when face-to-face with TUC leaders, for instance, even though he needed the trade unions on his side.
Comparing him to Blair is possible, but in the book, I draw parallels between Palme and another foreign politician: I still think Robert Kennedy is the more obvious choice.
AP: Of course I see the similarities. For a start, they were almost contemporaries and both Kennedy and Palme were assassinated. But why, specifically, did you pick Robert Kennedy?
HB: Both Kennedy brothers were charming and persuasive, but they could also be very aggressive, Robert especially. Robert Kennedy had very strongly held ethical convictions and was at the same time very determined to get his way by whatever means. He played hardball. And he was hated, too – as was his brother. Palme shared that toughness and hands-on capacity for getting things done. And so, to some extent anyway, did Blair.
AP: I have enjoyed your book for many reasons, but if I had to single one out, it would be your careful inclusion and analysis of the political issues of the day. What might be called the practice of ‘the craft of politics’. Palme was good at it or, as some people might put it, good at double-dealing, at compromising on issues of principle. One way or the other, did you have to force yourself to include all the ‘boring stuff’? Especially about social policy?
HB: Generally, it was a hard decision to make. Writing about Palme’s family background and youth was so engrossing that I became quite immersed in the narrative. You know what they say, the best bit of a biography comes before the first photo inserts – then the adult’s career starts and with it, the hard graft of describing somebody doing his or her job.
When Palme became a member of parliament in 1957, I had to face up to the ongoing, complex and nationwide debate about the big pension issue, the so-called ATP reform. After a referendum in 1957, the Swedish people had come out clearly in favour of the option offering income-related state pensions, by individual top-up payments. ‘Topping up’ had been the privilege of high-income groups and was notably part of senior civil service contracts – pensions were seen as deferred income, not handouts. Should this be a statutory right? Or a voluntary option for all? The problem was not really Palme’s, but Erlander’s (then PM), but Palme was showing himself to be a very effective negotiator. The issues raised were politically charged, there were moves and counter-moves, and at one point, the chairman’s casting vote was crucial. Still, overall, it didn’t look exactly like a riveting story. Would anyone want to know? But, turning a civil service pension option into nationwide apparatus was such an advanced idea, especially at the time.
I decided that a full account was essential. If not, it would’ve been like … writing about Björn Borg without mentioning tennis. Now I am perhaps particularly proud of the amount of work I did, throughout the book, on clarifying the nuts-and-bolts issues of the day.
Another fascinating ‘political craft’ section dealt with the ‘employee investment trust’, an idea which was doing the rounds in the 70s and in the end was subjected to parliamentary scrutiny. Put simply: workers would contribute to an investment fund set up to buy up and manage special share emissions so that, in the end, every working citizen would be a shareholder in the national manufacturing and trading base. The TUC liked the plan and wanted to play a strong but – to me at least – unclear role.
At first glance, the idea seemed absurdly radical. Rudolf Meidner, one the chief architects of the plan, put it like this: ‘We want to deprive the owners of capital of the power they are able to exert simply because of what they own… we will not fundamentally change society until we change ownership.’
AP: Wasn’t it amazing that the ’share-owning community’ should come so close to replacing the strong state?
HB: It was socialisation on a grand scale, in a way a forerunner of much subsequent debate about employee ownership – a very egalitarian, daring suggestion, but it came with built-in flaws which were recognised by all the important people in the cabinet, notably Palme and his Minister of Finance, Kjell-Olof Felt. Empowering a not-very accountable, cash-rich system to run parallel with the state was simply not on. Palme allegedly commented that ‘this one has gone further than I would ever have imagined’ and had a lot to do with the way the proposal slowly sunk out of sight.
Meidner, a Jewish refugee from what was then Breslau, fondly believed that what wouldn’t work in Germany might well become policy in socialist Sweden. He was wrong: Swedes believe in supporting a strong state because, on the whole, they trust the state. The country has been a peaceable place for a long time. Arguably, social policy in Germany is comparatively much more family-oriented than in Sweden because, for historical reasons, there’s little trust of the state.
Henrik Berggren has a record of reflecting incisively on the drivers of statemanaged Swedish policies. An earlier book with the challenging title Are Swedes Human? (co-authored with another historian) is constructed around the core idea that ‘The Swede’ is prepared to contribute large chunks of his/ her income to fund the welfare state in order to achieve individual goals, freed from burdensome dependencies and anxieties about the future. The argument is clever, persuasive and based on a wide range of cultural and political references. Despite, or rather, because of its serious undertone, the book is a joy to read.
AP: Social policy was and is important, but what other aspects of Palme’s political skills would you emphasise?
HB: His grasp of international politics. The way he brought Sweden’s foreign policy into the international arena as an instrument for mediation and support of small states. He had of course to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a series of ministers, but on the whole he remained very involved in the direction of policy.
His most formative experiences came during his travels, notably in South East Asia, but later also in Africa. He was interested in the Third World, perceptive enough to see the potential of these small, often poor countries working together and realise that their political driving force was nationalism, often a reaction against colonialism – and not communism, at least not primarily. Hence his resistance to the whole motivation and conduct of the Vietnam War. There was no point in pushing ‘western democracy’ at states which wanted independence above all. Anyway, small countries shouldn’t be dominated by big ones on any score. Not have to wait, cap in hand, for ‘aid’ complete with arrogant impositions. Such affronts to their dignity had their roots in attitudes Palme found unbearable. He believed in equality – in ‘Aristocracy for All’, if you like. It was a central feature of his personality.
But having put his views on record, what he did next was also typical of the man: he went home, put the reports into a desk drawer and made himself useful in internal politics. Soon he became seen as one of Erlander’s, the PM’s, key apparatchiks.
AP: Was this instinct? Or prescient?
HB: A bit of both. He went, probably intuitively, for a long-term strategy of focusing on home politics and to do that, he had to shelve his international interests for the duration. Sweden’s role as an international mediator lived on after Palme and became identified with men like Carl Bildt. He is an interesting comparison, because, for all his high profile work abroad, Bildt isn’t Palme and couldn’t be: he lacked a secure power base at home.
Neutrality, the policy that had seen the country all the way through WW2, had meant that Swedish politicians mainly kept a low profile abroad. Palme’s great insight was that a foreign policy based on neutrality could entail effective support for small countries under pressure: a smart idea, effective gesture politics, but also a way of drawing attention to the problems of states with marginal status. Besides, Sweden was already gaining prominence because of its activity in United Nations and, notably, because of Dag Hammarskjöld, who was nothing if not a committed moralist.
Much more was said during this combination of an absorbing conversation and an interview, reflecting the riches to be found in Underbara dagar framför oss.
I can only hope that the book, with its vivid modern history and human interest, will find its way on to the international market. Perhaps the best argument is this translated and slightly edited quote from Berggren’s foreword:
‘Olof Palme was encapsulated within the epoch called the short twentieth century [1914-1991; cf. Eric Hobsbawm]. Born in 1927, nine years after the end of WW1, Palme died three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. His childhood coincided with the early, wavering social advance towards the Swedish ‘People’s Home’. When the battle for Stalingrad was raging, he was in his teens. He reached adulthood as WW2 ended and, as the 50s began, engaged successfully in student politics and travelled back and forth through devastated Europe. But he went back home, joined the Social Democrats and was dedicated to formulating the welfare ideology of the 60s. Over the next decade, he spearheaded reforms that made Sweden one of the most egalitarian of countries in the West.
By the early 80s, when the United States and the Soviet Union had once more entered into a Cold War, he urged disarmament and collective security. Like no other Swede, it seems to me, Palme was involved in the most critical conflicts of the twentieth century: the Cold War, decolonisation, the welfare state, the Vietnam War, the exploding demand for education, the student revolt, nuclear power, the crises of the 70s.’