INIn 2011, I received a phone call from an old friend. He suggested that I accompany him and some others to a Stockholm café on Kungsgatan (Kungens väg) to discuss politics. The meeting turned out to be a gathering of young conservatives. These would-be intellectuals had formed a society called Conservative Union (The Conservative Association), and they wanted me to be the first chairman of the Stockholm branch. Their goal was to defend and spread conservative thought in Edmund Burke’s tradition.
In Sweden, conservatism has long been associated with dinghy sailors, smoke-infected rooms filled with schnapps-imbibing reactionaries. But in recent years, conservatism has begun to capture the attention of the Swedish people. The café we used to meet no longer exists, but the community we founded there now has over a thousand members. For the past ten years, society has given conservative thought a home in Sweden. It has particularly focused on reaching out to students.
People associate Sweden with cold weather, ABBA, pickled herring, IKEA and social democracy. The Social Democratic Party has been responsible in Sweden for almost eighty years. For many, this means universal healthcare, free education and an equal society. But for many others, it means higher taxation, loss of individual freedom and loss of religious values. Conservatism is increasing in Sweden – not only among conservative intellectuals, but also in Sweden’s political parties. What caused this shift? Years of dissatisfaction with power opened the door to a reaction from another tradition. Conservatism, unlike both liberalism and socialism, seeks to preserve the institutions that guarantee the prosperity of society. As Burke said, a society needs natural development rather than revolution.
Three different right-wing parties in Sweden now represent aspects of a Burkese conservatism: the Sweden Democrats, the Moderates and the Christian Democrats. Whether they will unite as a unified bloc remains to be seen.
The Sweden Democrats describe themselves as socially conservative, who support a strong but limited welfare state and stricter borders for migration. Recently, some of its members founded the think tank Oikos. (The name comes from Roger Scruton’s concept of oikofili, means “love of home.”) The think tank has no party affiliation, but its founder Mattias Karlsson was previously leader of the Sweden Democrats’ parliamentary group and invited Sir Roger to hold a party conference in 2016.
The Moderates – the largest and oldest party on the political right – have become more conservative since the outgoing Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who is remembered for lowering taxes and opening the doors to a large number of migrants in 2014. Led by Ulf Kristersson, the party has turned against a more conservative ethos – they advocate increased funding for the military and police and restrictions on immigration – although they continue to represent a legacy partly due to classical liberalism, rather than pure Burkish conservatism. Yet the party sticks to certain characteristic Burkish ideas; family as central to society and a need for a strong rule of law. The latter has been particularly important in the face of increasing gang violence.
The Christian Democrats – although their political tradition differs from the conservative tradition – have in recent years also begun to promote Burkish values, such as the importance of the family and rightly orderly freedom.
In recent times, it has even been urged within the Social Democratic Party to go in a conservative direction, where some politicians call themselves “left-wing conservatives”. They are conservative when it comes to culture, society and family policy – advocate, among other things, the preservation of traditional Swedish custom and stricter penalties for criminals – but lean towards a more active and interventionist government when it comes to economic policy. These views have always been on the margins of the party. But they have recently become more widespread within the party.
Sweden has recently been irritated by issues of migration and increased violence. The country opened its doors to migrants in 2014 during the global migration crisis, which despite being humane in theory was catastrophic in execution. Here is a case where the conservative tradition – which looks to human tradition and not to ideological abstracts – could have helped. One of the principles of conservative thinking is the precautionary principle; it is best not to rush into things without first carefully assessing the risks. Instead of basing their worldview on a set of abstract theories, is it not better to look at the real world we live in? If a policy fails, should it not be changed? And shouldn’t that change reflect the proven experiences of a society that has been held together for centuries, rather than theorists from academics?
Perhaps the Social Democratic government’s response to the migration crisis in 2015 played a role in the emergence of conservative ideas in Sweden. Next year’s elections will either result in another four years of social democratic dominance or a new coalition of those who have recently rediscovered a conservatism of the Burkish tradition.
Karl Gustel Wärnberg writes from Sweden.
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