The dark side of the ‘nordic miracle’

Scandinavian countries may not be a perfect model for social cohesion and happiness

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

“If you want the American dream, go to Finland,” British Labour Leader Ed Miliband said after a Nordic jaunt a couple of years back. At the time, he was hardly alone in his thinking. For several decades now, the rest of Europe and, indeed, much of the world has looked to the so-called “Nordic miracle” of the Scandinavian countries as a model for quality of life and social mobility.

Denmark, Sweden and Norway (the former Viking nations officially classed as Scandinavian), as well as their casually lumped-in Nordic brethren, Iceland and Finland, have been celebrated for everything from their progressive state-run schools, generous parental benefits and reasonable minority governments to their minimalist interior design and rugged knitwear. This image is further bolstered by the apparent bliss of their people. For decades now, northern European nations have led the pack in the unending stream of global happiness surveys and quality of life reports that fill the international airwaves. Indeed, the most recent “World Happiness Report” conducted by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network in 2013 found the most contented countries on the planet to be Denmark, Norway and Switzerland, in that order.

On all sides of the political spectrum, there is plenty to admire about the Nordic model. They are peaceable, stable and remarkably uncorrupt. Despite the high tax burden of the welfare state, capitalism also thrives, from the oil exploration know-how of Norway to the engineering prowess of Sweden.

That’s the received wisdom, anyway. In recent years, a shift has occurred across these European hinterlands that suggests the Nordic and Scandinavian nations are perhaps not the promised lands we believe them to be.

Michael Booth, a British writer who lives in Denmark with his Danish wife, has taken aim at the myth of Nordic flawlessness with his new book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle, a comical investigation into the darker, twisted truths beneath the Scandinavian dream. A reluctant expat, Booth finds much to love in his new Danish homeland, but also bemoans the “punishing weather, heinous taxes, the predictable monoculture, the stifling insistence on lowest-common-denominator consensus, the fear of anything or anyone different from the norm, the distrust of ambition and disapproval of success, the appalling public manners and the remorseless diet of fatty pork, salty liquorice, cheap beer and marzipan.” And that’s just for starters.

One of Booth’s key observations is that, apart from a collection of bonny statistics, few non-Scandinavians seem to know much about these supposedly perfect lands. “How come you have no idea where Aalborg or Trondheim actually are?” he asks jovially. “Why can no one you know speak Swedish or ‘get by’ in Norwegian? Name the Danish foreign minister. Or Norway’s most popular comedian.”

While the fever for all things Nordic has raged in the cultural sphere—from the gourmet craze for foraging (perfected by bearded Michelin-starred chef Magnus Nilsson) to the rise of Swedish crime novelists Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell—Scandinavian culture, according to Booth, is, in reality, anything but cool. In recent years, a number of anomalies have emerged in the tastefully whitewashed Nordic utopia. In Norway, there is the recent rise of the far right, an ongoing abortion debate (the government is currently discussing plans to allow a doctor to refuse to refer patients for an abortion if he is ethically opposed to the act) and, of course, Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011 in a horrendous attack apparently fuelled by xenophobic, far-right views.

In Sweden, there are also emerging social tensions, evident in the rise of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party, which won seats in parliament for the first time in 2010 and continues to gain support. Add to this Denmark and Norway’s lagging productivity, Finland’s high rates of alcoholism and suicide, and a more complex portrait of the Scandinavian paradise begins to emerge.

Fans of Sweden’s gentle egalitarian ethic might be interested to know it is now also the world’s eighth-largest exporter of arms. Danes, meanwhile, have the highest level of personal debt in relation to income in the world, as well as the highest rate of cancer. Murder and suicide rates in Finland are some of the highest in Europe, as is their medical need for prescribed psychotropic drugs. Most bizarre, Denmark is one of the only countries in the world in which bestiality is not a criminal act (apparently due to fears that a law would somehow expose pig farmers to prosecution when they inseminate their pigs).

Booth floats the dubious-sounding statistic that an estimated seven per cent of Danish men have had sex with an animal. Whether you believe that or not, it seems impossible to read the UN’s “World Happiness Report” in quite the same way again.


The dark side of the ‘nordic miracle’

  1. That article actually made the Scandinavians countries sound even better than I thought they were.

    • So what appeals to your more–Anders Breivik or legal bestiality?

  2. Sounds like the perfect Liberal hell so many Lieberals and Dippers dream of…

    • Depends. If you like t be a government managed chicken, Norway is the place to go. Everyone lives a lower standard of living so government lives well.

      Depends how much liberty you want. When I lived there the economic liberty of people was near zero. Pretty good wages, but after taxes and ultra high costs it didn’t go very far. Even worse than Canada.

      Great place to visit and I enjoyed the year I was there, but I was glad to leave to the next country.

  3. Would you rather the UK or Germany? Next Australia and New Zealand. In any case there is always the Good Old Hockey game.Or is that the Hockey Club of billionaires?

  4. Wow, a whiny Brit immigrates and then complains that his new home it not quite up to snuff. (This is hardly news to any Canadian is it?)

    • Whinging Pom syndrome is alive and well indeed.

      • That is a rather bigoted comment. Would you say something like that in reference to another ethnic group?

        • Bwa ha ha
          There’s an ethnic group called Poms now is there?
          PS I’m British too.

        • Bigoted does not automatically mean wrong.

          • Doesn’t mean right either, but point well made.

  5. It was interesting that all the questions asked in the piece were obscure and the comparisons were made with other European countries.
    Vellacourt and his ilk are trying to get the same discussion going here that Norwegian religious fundies are having there. All this indicates is that religious fundies are always trying to tell everyone how they should behave – not really a Nordic issue any more than it’s a global one.
    Brevik did kill 77, but how does that match up against that paragon of freedom the USA? Given the rise of the far right right everywhere, again is it really a Nordic or global problem?
    Prescription drugs are high in a country that lives in 24hrs of darkness as is alcoholism. How does this compare with other arctic areas. If you compare frostbite cases in Finland with those in Spain, I’m pretty sure that Finland will look like a problem case, but that really isn’t a just comparison is it?

    Name the UK foreign minister, the Russian Prime Minister or Canada’s top comedian… try not to use google and justify your decision for Canada’s top comedian.

    Even a funny piece needs some effort. I do hope you weren’t paid for this as it clearly took very little effort and contains no journalism or even original opinion. All you did was cut and paste the wailings of a whinging Pom

  6. You take the worst part of each country and make a broad comparasin.
    If that is the biggest problem with each of the countries, I would take it any day over the USA.

    • Not me. I have actually lived in USA and Norway…. not just a visit either.

      USA hands down is where I would go. I would rater even live in Central America or South America than Norway.

      Don’t get me wrong, Norway is a great place to visit. Just would not want to be a permanent resident.

  7. Is this what passes for commentary in Macleans these days? Regurgitating an article by another writer?

    • Sure beats CBC.

  8. Funny how so many people here are peeved because someone has taken a bit of the shine off the Scandinavian fairy-tale. I guess just as we need countries to demonize, we need others to sentimentalize.

    • We get pumped with propaganda selling big government, big socialism, less control over our own lives it isn’t funny.

      I have actually lived in Norway, Stavager Norway to be precise. Was there for a year and while I loved the visit, liked the people I was ready to leave for my next assignment.

      If you like government managing you like hen chicken, Norway is for you.

  9. My opinion comes from the year I lived in Stavanger Norway.

    Real nice place to visit, but it isn’t in the top 25 places I would want to live. People are economically so repressed, no wonder they are high on the suicide charts. Economic liberty all gone really. While they had some advantages like less corruption, a real socialist model far more advanced than corrupted Canadian socialism, yet you felt like a government chicken in a coupe.

    I was happy when I got my next job assignment into another country.

  10. The far right in Norway. Are you talking about the Progress Party? They are not far right. They are economically libertarian. Their social policies are a mix of libertarian and conservative ideas. The party supports gay marriage. It also takes the toughest line on crime calling for life sentences for murderers. It supports close church state ties and takes a tough line on immmigration. On the other hand, the party takes no position on abortion.On foreign policy, the party is the most staunchly pro-U.S., pro-NATO, and pro-Israel. Breivik has nothing to do with the party. He hasn’t been a party member for years. The guy thought the Progress Party was too moderate. The party is now the 2nd largest party in the center-right coalition government. You want to blame someone else for Breivik. Then, blame the Norwegian draft board. Three times Breivik went before the draft board for refusing to fulfill his mandatory military service obligation. Three times the guy was found nuts. Nothing was done.

  11. You want a great country in western europe try Switzerland. Much greater support for the capitalist system and personal initative. Low crime rate because all the able bodied men are allowed to keep the rifle from their mandatory miltary service in their homes with 50 rounds of ammo. Officers are allowed to also keep their sidearms at home. The landscape is beautiful and the weather isn’t as bad. On social issues, the country generally allows the public to decide by referendum. That’s why in most cantons there is an official church. Yet like Denmark and Norway, abortion is only permitted in the 1st trimester. In Switzerland, people are citizens not subjects of the state.

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