The Swede dreams that could save Scots Tories
SWEDEN is an unlikely pin-up country for the Scottish Conservatives. It is arguably the most left-wing nation in the free world, its taxation is the highest in Europe and its welfare-state pay-outs are worth more than a lot of British salaries.
Yet for all this, the Tories are having something of a Scandinavian love-in. Today, they finish their "seminar on education and health" in Edinburgh, starring various Swedish speakers spelling out how the Tory policies aren’t so mad after all.
Their agenda is to persuade Scotland that their voucher scheme for schools and hospitals is actually forward-looking and European. The result is, perhaps, the most successful policy the party has had since its 1997 wipe-out.
Sweden is a growing blip on the Scottish political radar. In the space of three years, flights have opened up connecting Stockholm with Prestwick and Edinburgh. Visiting Scots can see for themselves what our country could be like if it was run differently.
They find a tourist industry well attuned to upmarket rural breaks on faraway archipelago islands. Swedes are twice as likely to complete their education, 25 per cent more likely to survive cancer and half as likely to suffer a road accident.
For their part, Swedes learn (with uniform horror) that finding a good school is considered an issue, even in a rich country such as Scotland. Swedish doctors find it hilarious that the NHS Scotland doctors are still using written (not computerised) medical notes. "It was considered very important to wear a tie," said one Swedish doctor I met who worked in Scotland for a while, "but not so important to wash your hands before an operation."
The exchange of ideas is now taking place on a political scale. And it’s all thanks to the Scottish Tories. David McLetchie, their leader, has fallen in love with the Moderaterna, a party considered right-wing in Sweden but with ideas of "fair" taxation that would scare even Gordon Brown.
But the labels "left" and "right" are becoming increasingly redundant in the debate on public services. The voucher system that the Tories propose - setting aside the cost of state provision to buy private services - is similar to that used by left-wing parties across Europe.
Sweden is a brilliant example for the Scottish Tories because it is a living rejection of the normal left-versus-right labels. Its tax is the highest in Europe, but private companies run Stockholm’s underground system and many of Sweden’s main hospitals.
This may be so, runs the normal British argument, but Swedes pay more tax, it’s a more left-wing country, so it works better. This is one of the most dangerous falsehoods in British public life, and worth exploring in detail.
Take education: Sweden is not particularly generous, spending 3,600 per secondary pupil, according to last year’s figures from the OECD. Scotland’s average secondary-schools spend (we learnt last month) is 40 per cent higher, at least 5,000 a head.
The difference is organisation. In Sweden, any two teachers can set up a school, and are paid a fixed amount by the government for every child who attends. Sink schools just close down, as parents send children to better schools.
Glasgow, incidentally, is a jackpot of school spending. Figures last month show the city now spends an average 6,200 per secondary place. This can buy seriously good education: a year at the world-renowned Hutcheson’s Grammar is 6,800 a year.
Here is another left-right conundrum: Scotland’s poor are barred from the world-class schools on their doorstep because of political, not financial, reasons. Taxpayers have set aside enough cash for every child to afford what Hutchie’s can offer. But this money cannot be used to send a gifted working-class child to one of these schools (and Scotland has many) because the political authorities cannot stomach the idea. It offends their idea of political purity.
To Swedes, this doesn’t sound like socialism. Does Scottish Labour really hate the private sector more than it wants to help disadvantaged children? Can’t schools such as Hutchie’s be promised 500 state-school pupils if they open a new wing? This is exactly what’s happening in England, where Dulwich Academy is opening its own "city academy" - an idea that has been banned in Scotland because of its political impurity. "No excellence please, we’re Scottish" seems to be the mantra.
Comprehensive education can be seen as arguably the biggest betrayal of the working class. It means great state schools to families who can afford houses in the right catchment areas, while the council-estate children more often than not get sink schools.
Next, health. Sweden has an enviable reputation - but not one it bought. Its health spending per head is 1,300, against Scotland’s 1,600. But again, it’s spent differently - as witnessed in the St Gran’s, Stockholm’s largest hospital. Cut free from the state control six years ago, it became a foundation hospital and its private team started efficiencies. Soon, X-ray costs halved and overall costs dropped 30 per cent. Its average wait for a hip replacement is ten weeks: in Scotland, it’s ten months.
AGAIN, this is a political decision - not a financial one. If the NHS were to allow hip-replacement patients to take the 6,240 cost of their operation and go anywhere, they could have it done in ten weeks as well. But that would be ... well, too right-wing.
So the Scottish Executive has its own monument to its policy of rejecting foundation hospitals and keeping the NHS pure: 112,000 Scots now on a waiting list, up a majestic 8,000 since Labour came to power. England’s waiting list has halved.
Yet Holyrood’s political arguments remain locked in the past. In the NHS Scotland debate seven weeks ago, the Scottish National Party was up in arms about any hint that ministers would "boost profits of the private sector". If the SNP looked at England, let alone Sweden, it would see its waiting list is in freefall because of the private foreign clinics that have been invited in. But the SNP is starting to view England as the Wee Frees view Las Vegas: a den of sin, with private firms profiting everywhere.
Is this left-wing? Would the pioneers of Scottish socialism - nationalist or unionist - look down at Scotland, with its rising waiting list and say: "Well, at least they’re not boosting the profits of the private sector?"
Even looking across the Border from England, ministers are just as appalled. The labels of "left" and "right" are fast falling away in Westminster too: Labour and Tory are fighting themselves over the reform agenda.
And fighting over Sweden. St Gran’s has been visited by Tory MPs and Labour ministers, each claiming to sprinkle its magic over Britain. Per Btelson, head of Capio health in Stockholm, is regularly called to the Department of Health in Westminster.
But in Scotland, the Tories have Sweden - and the reform agenda - all to themselves. If this keeps up until the 2007 Holyrood election, it may allow Scots to say, for the first time in a generation: "I’m voting Tory because they’re the only ones with fresh ideas."
And this would not even be a right-wing resurgence. Scots who are only concerned with the rich have little reason to complain. The comprehensive system and the NHS work far better for the well-off: and as for the poor - let them eat welfare!
The penny dropped in Sweden ten years ago. It switched from an entitlement culture to an empowerment culture - and the country has so far only taken the first few steps. Its voucher system is only 13 years old: it has more work to do.
The empowerment agenda is still waiting to happen in Scotland, and it’s neither left not right. Devolution has given us all the power we need to get started. If the Scottish Tories make this their own, they will finally give Scotland a reason to vote for them again.
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