In 2011, I received a phone call from an old friend. He suggested I join him and a few others at a Stockholm café on Kungsgatan (The King’s Road) to discuss politics. The meeting turned out to be a gathering of young conservatives. These aspiring intellectuals had formed a society called Konservativa Förbundet (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 the tradition of Edmund Burke.
In Sweden, conservatism has long been associated with dingy, smoke-infested rooms filled with schnapps-imbibing reactionaries. Yet in the last few years, conservatism has started to grab the attention of the Swedish people. The café we used to meet at no longer exists, but the society we founded there now has well over a thousand members. In the last ten years, the society has given conservative thought a home in Sweden. It has especially 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 in charge in Sweden for nearly eighty years. This, to many, means universal healthcare, free education, and an egalitarian society. But to many others, it means higher taxation, loss of individual freedom, and the loss of religious values. Conservatism is on the rise in Sweden—not just among conservative intellectuals, but also in Sweden's political parties. What brought about this shift? Years of dissatisfaction with the government in power opened the door to a reaction from another tradition. Conservatism, unlike both liberalism and socialism, seeks to preserve the institutions that guarantee the flourishing of society. As Burke said, a society needs natural evolution rather than revolution.
Three different right-wing parties in Sweden now represent aspects of a Burkean conservatism: the Sweden Democrats, the Moderates, and the Christian Democrats. Whether they will unite as a unified block remains to be seen.
The Sweden Democrats describe themselves as socially conservative, supporting a strong but limited welfare state and stricter limits on migration. Recently, some of its members founded the think tank Oikos. (The name comes from Roger Scruton’s concept of oikophilia, meaning “love of home.”) The think tank has no party affiliation, but its founder Mattias Karlsson was the former leader of the Sweden Democrats’ parliamentary group, and invited Sir Roger to address a party conference in 2016.
The Moderates—the largest and oldest party on the political right—have become more conservative since the departure of former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who is remembered for lowering taxes and opening the doors to a large number of migrants in 2014. Under the leadership of Ulf Kristersson, the party has turned toward a more conservative ethos—they favor increased funding for the military and the police, and restrictions on immigration—although they continue to represent a heritage partially indebted to classical liberalism, rather than a pure Burkean conservatism. Nevertheless, the party holds fast to certain characteristic Burkean 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 is distinct from the conservative tradition—have in recent years also begun to promote Burkean values, such as the importance of the family and rightly ordered liberty.
Recently, there have even been calls within the Social Democratic party to move in a conservative direction, with certain politicians calling themselves “left-wing conservatives.” They are conservative when it comes to culture, society, and family policies—advocating, among other things, the preservation of traditional Swedish customs and stricter penalties for criminals—but lean toward a more active and interventionist government when it comes to economic policies. These views have always existed on the party's margins. But they have recently become more widespread within the party.
Sweden has recently been vexed by questions of migration and increased violence. The country opened its doors to migrants in 2014 during the global migration crisis, which, while humane in theory, was disastrous 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 thought is the principle of caution; it is best not to rush into things without first carefully assessing the risks. Instead of basing one’s worldview on a set of abstract theories, is it not better to look to the real world we live in? If a policy is failing, shouldn’t it be changed? And shouldn’t that change reflect the tried and tested experiences of a society held together for centuries, rather than the theories of academics?
Perhaps the Social Democratic government's response to the migration crisis in 2015 played a role in the rise of conservative ideas in Sweden. Next year’s election will either result in four more years of Social Democratic dominance or a new coalition of those that have recently rediscovered a conservatism of the Burkean tradition.
Karl Gustel Wärnberg writes from Sweden.
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