DAVID CROUCH was a news editor at The Financial Times until, in 2013, he moved to Sweden. Now freelance, he also teaches investigative journalism at the University of Gothenburg, and is the author of a book on the Swedish economy…
You went from The Financial Times in London to freelance in Gothenburg. What was that like?
Oh, that’s a nice question! It was a liberation. I took a senior journalist out to lunch before I left, in 2013. He said I’d be lucky to get two or three stories from Sweden published a year. But, from the first week I arrived, I translated articles and found there were rich pickings that would travel. I had several years tapping into that and really enjoyed the interest back home.
Your book Almost Perfekt explains how Sweden bridges the gap between socialism and capitalism. How does it do it?
The book is clear: the idea of Sweden as a socialist country is a myth. In the 1950s, the Social Democratic party was hegemonic, the trade unions were strong and, under Olof Palme, Sweden’s foreign policy was left wing. The image of Swedish socialism was wrongly created. But the Swedish model is actually free market… what academics call ‘welfare capitalism’. The support for families was drawn up to end ‘inefficiency’ in capitalism, getting men and women back to work, and Sweden’s workforce is constantly restructuring to keep up with global corporations. It’s a ‘hidden welfare state’, so to speak… a transition model. A journalist from The Atlantic newspaper just beat me to it inventing that phrase!
Sweden has a monarchy, but no longer an aristocracy. Nevertheless, there is ‘old money’. How important is it for the Swedish economy?
Powerful business families play a very important role in the Swedish economy. The Wallenbergs are the best known, but all private investment holding companies look to invest in the long-term. Instead of looking at quarterly reports, this method allows companies to have the freedom of a horizon.
The best-known Swedish companies are IKEA and Volvo. How have they become so successful?
Well, that’s actually two questions in one. IKEA and Volvo have very different business models. In the 1960s, Sweden embarked on a huge housing programme, building what they claimed to be a million homes in ten years. If you build homes, you need furniture. IKEA ran with that to expand to the rest of the world. Regarding Volvo… I live in the Volvo city. The company is focused north of the Göta River and the bus routes end in Torslanda because so many people are employed by Volvo. When the financial crash hit in 2008, there was panic. Saab went down, but Volvo was saved by a small up-start from China. “The Chinese!” There were doom stories that the image would be ruined, but it has actually been one of the most interesting business stories to come out of Sweden in the past ten years.
DAVID CROUCH is a journalist and the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What We Can Learn from It.
This article is a Fika Online exclusive.