Dark lands: the grim truth behind the ‘Scandinavian miracle’


Television in Denmark is rubbish, Finnish men like a drink and Sweden is not exactly a model of republic. Why, asks one expert, does everybody guess the Nordic region is a utopia?

For the past few years the world has been in thrall to all things Nordic( for which purpose we must of course add Iceland and Finland to the Viking nations of Denmark, Norway and Sweden ). “The Sweet Danish Life: Copenhagen: Cool, Creative, Carefree, ” simpered National Geographic; “The Nordic Countries: The Next Supermodel”, boomed the Economist; “Copenhagen really is wonderful for so many reasons, “ gushed the Guardian.

Whether it is Denmark’s happiness, its restaurants, or TV dramas; Sweden’s gender equality, crime novels and retail giants; Finland’s schools; Norway’s oil wealth and weird songs about foxes; or Iceland’s bounce-back from the financial abyss, we have an insatiable appetite for positive Nordic news narratives. After decades dreaming of life among olive trees and vineyards, these days for some reason, we Brits are now projecting our need for the existence of an earthly paradise northwards.

I have contributed to the relentless Tetris shower of print columns on the wonders of Scandinavia myself over the years but now I tell: enough! Nu er det nok ! Enough with foraging for dinner. Enough with the impractical minimalist interiors. Enough with the envious reports on the abolition of gender-specific pronouns. Enough of the unblinking idolatry of all things knitted, bearded, rye bread-based and licorice-laced. It is time to redress the imbalance, shed a little light Beyond the Wall.

Take the Danes, for example. True, they claim to be the happiest people in the world, but why no mention of the fact they are second only to Iceland when it comes to ingesting anti- depressants? And Sweden? If, as a headline in the present working paper once claimed, it is “the most successful society the world has ever seen”, why aren’t more of you dreaming of “a little place” in Ume?

Actually, I have lived in Denmark on and off for about a decade, because my wife’s work is here( and she’s Danish ). Life here is pretty comfortable, more so for indigenous households than for immigrants or ambitious go-getters( Google Jantelov for more on this ), but as with all the Nordic nations, it remains largely free of armed conflict, extreme poverty, natural disasters and Jeremy Kyle.

So let’s remove those rose-tinted ski goggles and take a closer look at the objects of our infatuation

Protesters clash with police at an asylum centre near Copenhagen in 2008. Photograph: AFP/ Getty Images


Why do the Danes score so highly on international happiness surveys? Well, they do have high levels of trust and social cohesion, and do very nicely from industrial pork products, but according to the OECD they also work fewer hours per year than most of the rest of the world. As a outcome, productivity is worryingly sluggish. How can they afford all those expensively foraged meals and hand-knitted woollens? Simple, the Danes also have the highest level of private debt in the world( four times as much as the Italians, to put it into context; enough to warrant a warn from the IMF ), while more than half of them admit to using the black market to procure goods and services.

Perhaps the Danes’ dirtiest secret is that, according to a 2012 report from the Worldwide Fund for Nature, they have the fourth largest per capita ecological footprint in the world. Even ahead of the US. Those offshore windmills may seem impressive as you land at Kastrup, but Denmark burns an nasty plenty of coal. Worth bearing that in mind the next time a Dane wags her finger at your terrace heater.

I’m afraid I have to set you straight on Danish television too. Their big new drama series, Arvingerne( The Legacy, when it comes to BBC4 afterwards this year) is stunning, but current realities of prime-time Danish TV is day-to-day, wall-to-wall reruns of 15-year-old episodes of Midsomer Murders and documentaries on pig welfare. The Danes of course also have highest taxes in the world( though only the sixth-highest wages hence the debt, I guess ). As a spokesperson I interviewed at the Danish centre-right thinktank Cepos put it, they effectively work until Thursday lunchtime for the state’s coffers, and the other day and half for themselves.

Presumably the correlative of this is that Denmark has the best public services? According to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment rankings( Pisa ), Denmark’s schools lag behind even the UK’s. Its health service is buckling too.( The other day, I turned up at my local A& E to be told that I had to make an appointment, which I can’t help feeling rather misunderstands the nature of the service .) According to the World Cancer Research Fund, the Danes have the highest cancer rates on countries around the world. “But at least the trains run on time! ” I hear you say. No, that was Italy under Mussolini. The Danish national rail company has skirted bankruptcy in recent years, and the trains most assuredly do not run on time. Somehow, though, the governmental forces still managed to find 2m to money a two-year tax-scandal investigation largely concerned, as far as I can make out, with the sexual orientation of the prime minister’s husband, Stephen Kinnock.

Most seriously of all, economic equality which many believe is the foundation of societal success is diminish. According to a report in Politiken this month, the proportion of people below the poverty line has doubled over the past decades. Denmark is becoming a nation divided, basically, between the places which have a branch of Sticks’n’Sushi( Copenhagen) and the rest. Denmark’s provinces have become a social dumping ground for non-western immigrants, the elderly, the unemployed and the unemployable who live alongside Denmark’s 22 m intensively farmed swine, raised 10 to a pen and pumped full of antibiotics( the swine, that is ).

Other awkward truths? There is more than a whiff of the police state about the fact that Danish policeman refuse to display ID numbers and can refuse to give their names. The Danes are aggressively jingoistic, waving their red-and-white dannebrog at the slightest provocation. Like the Swedes, they espoused privatisation with great enthusiasm( even the ambulance service is privatised ); and can seem spectacularly unsophisticated in their race relations( cartoon depictions of black people with big lips and bones through their snouts are not uncommon in the national press ). And if you think a move across the North Sea would help you escape the paedophiles, racists, thiefs and tax-dodging corporations one reads about in the British media on a daily basis, I’m afraid I must disabuse you of that too. Are plenty of them.

Plus side? No one talks about cricket.


The dignity and resolve of the Norwegian people in the wake of the attacks by Anders Behring Breivik in July 2011 was deeply impressive, but in September the rightwing, anti-Islamist Progress party of which Breivik had been an active member for many years won 16.3% of the vote in the general election, enough to elevate it into coalition government for the first time in its history. There remains a disturbing Islamophobic sub-subculture in Norway. Ask the Danes, and they will tell you that the Norwegians are the most insular and xenophobic of all the Scandinavians, and it is true that since they came into a little bit of money in the 1970 s the Norwegians have become increasingly Scrooge-like, hoarding their gold, fearful of outsiders.

Though 2013 watched a record number of asylum applications to Norway, it granted asylum to fewer than half of them( around 5,000 people ), a one-third of the number that less wealthy Sweden acknowledges( Sweden accepted over 9,000 from Syria alone ). In his book Petromania, journalist Simon Stre warns that the powerful oil hall is “isolating us and inducing the country asocial”. According to him, his countrymen have been corrupted by their oil money, are running less, retiring earlier, and calling in sick more frequently. And while previous governments have controlled the spending of oil revenues, the new bunch are threatening a splurge which many advise could lead to full-blown Dutch cancer.

Like the merchant who never touches his own supplying, those dirty frackers the Norwegians boast of using only renewable energy sources, all the while amassing the world’s largest monarch wealth money selling fossil fuels to the rest of us. As Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen put it to me when I visited his office in Oslo University: “We’ve always been used to thinking of ourselves as part of the solution, and with the oil we abruptly became part of the problem. Most people are truly in denial.”

Finns having a quiet drink Photograph: Martti Kainulainen/ REX


We need not detain ourselves here too long. Only 320,000 it would appear instead greedy and irresponsible people cling to this breathtaking, yet borderline uninhabitable stone in the North Atlantic. Further attention will only encourage them.


I am very fond of the Finns, a most pragmatic, redoubtable people with a Sahara-dry sense of humour. But would I want to live in Finland? In summertime, you’ll be beset by mosquitos, in wintertime, you’ll freeze that’s presuming no one shoots you, or you don’t shoot yourself. Finland ranks third in global handgun ownership behind only America and Yemen; has the highest slaying rate in western Europe, double that of the UK; and by far the highest suicide rate in the Nordic countries.

The Finns are epic Friday-night bingers and alcohol is now the leading cause of death for Finnish men. “At some phase in the evening around 11.30 pm, people start behaving aggressively, hurling punches, wrestling, ” Heikki Aittokoski, foreign editor of Helsingin Sanomat, told me. “The next day, people chuckle about it. In the US, they’d have an intervention.”

With its tarnished crown jewel, Nokia, devoured by Microsoft, Finland’s hitherto robust economy is more dependent than ever on selling newspaper largely I was told, to Russian porn nobles. Luckily, judging by a recent journey I took with my eldest son the length of the country by train, the place appears to be 99% trees. The position was a bit samey.

A car burning after riots in Stockholm in 2013. Photograph: EPA

The nation once dubbed “the west’s reigning educational superpower”( the Atlantic) has slipped in the most recent Pisa rankings. This follows some unfortunate incidents involving Finnish students the burning of Porvoo cathedral by an 18 -year-old in 2006; the Jokela shootings( another disgruntled 18 -year-old) in 2007, and the shooting of 10 more students by a peer in 2008 which led some to speculate whether Finnish schools were quite as wonderful as their reputation would have us believe.

If you do decide to move there, don’t expect scintillating conversation. Finland’s is a reactive, listening culture, burdened by taboos too many to mention( civil war, second world war and cold war-related, largely ). They’re not big on chat. Look up the word “reticent” in the dictionary and you won’t find a picture of an awkward Finn standing in a corner looking at his shoelaces, but you should.

“We would always prefer to be alone, ” a Finnish female once admitted to me. She worked for the tourist board.


Anything I say about the Swedes will pale in comparison to their own excoriating self-image. A few years ago, the Swedish Institute of Public Opinion Research asked young Swedes to describe their compatriots. The top eight adjectives they chose were: envious, stiff, industrious, nature caring, quiet, honest, dishonest, xenophobic.

I met with ke Daun, Sweden’s most venerable ethnologist. “Swedes seem not to ‘feel as strongly’ as certain other people”, Daun writes in his excellent book, Swedish Mentality. “Swedish women try to groan as little as possible during childbirth and they often ask, when it is all over, whether they called very much. They are very pleased to be told they did not.” Apparently, crying at funerals is frowned upon and “remembered long afterwards”. The Swedes are, he tells, “highly adept at insulating themselves from each other”. They will do anything to avoid sharing a lift with a stranger, as I found out during a day-long experiment behaving as un-Swedishly as possible in Stockholm.

Effectively a one-party country albeit been endorsed by got a couple of shadowy industrialist households for much of the 20 th century, “neutral” Sweden( one of the world largest limbs exporters) continues to thrive economically thanks to its distinctive brand of totalitarian modernism, which curbs liberties, inhibits dissent in the name of consensus, and seems hell-bent on severing the bonds between spouse and husband, children and mothers, and elderly on their children. Suppose of it as the China of the north.

Youth unemployment is higher than the UK’s and higher than the EU median; consolidation is an ongoing challenge; and as with Norway and Denmark, the Swedish right is on the rise. A spokesman for the Sweden Democrats( currently at an all-time high of close to 10% in the polls) insisted to me that immigrants were “more prone to violence”. I pointed out that Sweden was one of the most bloodthirsty nations on earth for much of the last millennium. I was told we’d run out of time.

Ask the Finns and they will tell you that Swedish ultra-feminism has emasculated their men, but they will struggle to drown their sorrows. Their state-run alcohol monopoly stores, the dreaded Systembolaget, were described by Susan Sontag as “part funeral parlour, part back-room abortionist”.

The myriad successes of the Nordic countries are no miracle, they were born of a combination of Lutheran modesty, peasant parsimony, geographical determinism and ruthless pragmatism( “The Russians are attacking? Join the Nazis! The Nazis are losing? Join the Friend! ” ). These societies function well for those who conform to the collective median, but they aren’t much fun for tall poppies. Schools rein in higher achievers for the sake of the less gifted; “elite” is a dirty word; showings of success, aspiration or wealth are frowned upon. If you are able to cope with this, and the cost, and the cold( both metaphorical and inter-personal ), then by all means join me in my adopted hyggelige home. I’ve rustled up a sorrel salad and there’s some expensive, weak beer in the refrigerator. Pull up an Egg. I hear Taggart’s on again!

The Almost Nearly Perfect People The Truth About the Nordic Miracle( Jonathan Cape ), by Michael Booth, is published on 6 February. It will be BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week from 10 February .

This article was revised on 29 January 2014. The assert that Denmark is the EU’s largest oil exporter was based on out-of-date information and has been removed. A minor linguistic mistake has furthermore been corrected.

Read more: www.theguardian.com


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