Author: Tony Griffiths
If a brisk history of Scandinavia was to be written and published somewhere in Australia, South Australia was the appropriate place. Within a small nation this small state tries to assert some further difference and autonomy in its culture, political leadership and economic planning. Among Australian states it has been least afraid of active government. And it attracts fond images to set beside the Scandinavian stereotypes of Norwegians (alcoholic puritans), Finns (alcoholic fighters), Danes (pornographic dairyfarmers) and Swedes (sex, welfare and bureaucracy from the cradle to the grave).
What should chiefly interest Australians just now is probably Scandinavian economic policy: how small, affluent national economies survive best in an unstable world. That is not Tony Griffiths' main subject. Instead he offers an heroically compressed history of the politics and diplomacy by which the four nations have own and held their independence, and a witty and affectionate account of their leading writers, artists, and (for Sweden) businessmen. Griffiths claims to impartial between the four cultures, but nobody steeped in the lesser three can entirely avoid their feelings about the over-achieving Swedes.
While Norway's major literary figure, Ibsen gained an ill-deserved reputation as a champion of women's rights, his young Swedish neighbour and rival, Strindberg, was intent on sticking his knife into what he described as the old troll's back ... Strindberg set out to tear down Ibsen's hero women, and point out how the Darwinian laws of evolution and natural selection inevitably meant that men would triumph over women. Sweden in the nineteenth century was a man's country. It provided immense natural resources and a block-busting determination to exploit them.
Having lost their former imperial power,
the Swedes turned to economic development, and their German thoroughness and the protestant work ethic soon made their economic miracle unique in the north, then in Europe, and finally, in the twentieth century, in the world.
But it did not necessarily make them likeable.
Griffiths sketches the economic miracle and the welfare developments, but most of the book lacks obvious lessons for Australia (but may be more interesting to Australian readers) because it focuses on the Scandinavian problems which Australians don't have rather than those they do have. We were spared the struggles for national existence. Our literary and cultural problems as small fish in the vast English-speaking ocean differ for better and worse from the problems which their unique, interrelated, "small" languages create for Scandinavians. Snow and sunshine offer different seductions, and alcohol can be a different friend or enemy in daylight and arctic darkness.
Such a short book hasn't room for much social history. From the 1930s the pursuit of welfare gets attention, but still chiefly as a political story. Griffiths keeps the narrative lively by dramatizing it where he can. If a small percentage swing puts the Social Democrats out of office for a term, headlines announce a national U-turn and the end of the welfare state - but the SDs are usually back before long, alone or in coalition, and the conservative interludes stay well to the Left of Hawke and Keating and do very little to dismantle or re-direct the progressive machine. Though Griffiths keeps his story eventful, and gives a proper impression of the continuing division and controversy about tax and welfare policies, he is well aware of the underlying stability and success of the Scandinavian achievement:
the creation of a tolerant and good society, one that shows a welcome to foreigners and strangers, a respect for democratic institutions and a willingness to undertake difficult social engineering projects, based on a solid economic foundation of abundant natural resources, proven technological excellence and innovation, and a willingness from all to share the profits.