Swedish Election Cautionary Tale for Scotland

Sweden’s general election, which took place Saturday, has been won by the centre-left, which may be forced into coalition with an anti-immigration party similar to UKIP. As Scotland contemplates independence, the Swedish example, of a small, social democratic European country paralysed by a small xenophobic party, might give Yes voters pause. In Sweden, the centre-left bloc of Social Democrats, Greens, and the Left won 43.7 per cent of the vote, while the governing centre-right bloc of parties won 39.1 per cent of the vote.

The Sweden Democrats, a xenophobic and ardently anti-immigration party, won third place, with 13 per cent of the vote, and the Feminist Initiative won 3.2 per cent, short of the 4 per cent needed to win seats in the parliament. This leaves the Leader of the Social Democrats, Stefan Lofven, in an uncomfortable position – he cannot form a government without including the Sweden Democrats. As a centre-left party with a base largely tolerant of multiculturalism and migration, a coalition agreement with the Sweden Democrats risks a revolt of the party faithful. The most likely scenario, then, is a minority government dominated by the Social Democrats, as the Liberal and Center parties, formerly in coalition government with the centre-right Moderate Party of Prime Minister Reinfeldt, have ruled out joining a government led by Lofven.

A minority government, however, will still need the support of a majority in parliament to pass any legislation. That means that the Sweden Democrats, even if excluded from Government, will retain influence over policymaking, and will have successfully blocked the centre-left from being able to broadly implement its programme of reforms. Even a minority government would be good news for Sweden’s centre-left, marking a return to power by the Social Democrats – in 2006, Prime Minister Fredik Reinfeldt’s coalition swept the party from power after it had governed for most of the 20th century. The centre-right coalition government that has governed Sweden between 2006 and 2014 has dismantled much of what made Sweden a social democratic country, cutting taxes significantly, allowing private companies to compete for certain health care delivery services, and downsizing the public sector.

Sweden is the biggest Nordic economy, so the direction of its economic and migration policies affect the entire region. With a minority government, everything from the fiscal stimulus proposed by the Social Democrats to the increase in taxes on restaurants, banks, and in VAT, would now require the support of an Opposition party to pass, significantly hampering the Government’s ability to enact the reforms endorsed by a plurality of Swedish voters. This political tale should be cautionary for Scotland – being a small social democratic country doesn’t exempt a state from broader currents of European politics. The SNP, in 2007, formed a minority government in the Scottish Parliament.The Sweden Democrats are now the kingmakers in the Swedish Parliament, and UKIP has a Scottish MEP. As demonstrated by the French european elections this year in which Marine Le Pen’s Front National surged to first, with 24 per cent of the vote, and in the UK, where UKIP took first as well, with 27.49 per cent, anti-European, anti-immigration sentiment is powerful in Europe at the moment.

The Yes campaign often argues that an independent Scotland would be both a more “normal” European country, one in which pro-European sentiment isn’t scorned by much of the political elite, and a more social democratic country, delivering a more generous welfare state, a more progressive tax system, and a more inclusive immigration policy. The SNP, in 2007, formed a minority government in the Scottish Parliament. That the multi-party, proportionally representative nature of Scottish politics has already forced the SNP into minority government once before, should demonstrate that what happens in Sweden may yet happen in Scotland. Independence isn’t about a short, or even medium-term set of political priorities for Scotland. Voters on Thursday should consider what Scotland, in the long-term, what sort of politics an independent Scotland would choose, and to what extent they would want to be a “normal” European country. While this isn’t inherently an argument against independence, it is clear that a radical shift leftwards in Scottish politics is far from guaranteed after independence. Sweden has just shown us that the politics a small, normal, and social democratic country cannot always avoid the pitfalls of close-mindedness, petty nationalism, and xenophobia.

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