In the newspapers today, there is much talk of Sweden turning to the 'far-right.' The Times has a picture of skinhead nutters on the march, giving the impression that Swedes are about a day away from goose-stepping down Drottninggatan. The myth of Sweden going all Nazi is a myth that’s hard to puncture because no one has a good word to say about the Sweden Democrats, who are hoping to finish first. They'll not end up in government, because no one would enter coalition with them. But their electoral success baffles the outside world.
There is no agreed definition of "far-right" and the term is lazily used: dramatic, but serves to cloud understanding of what's happening in Europe. The Sweden Democrats did emerge from a group of neo-Nazi nutters and have supporters, even a few candidates, who spew racist bile. But they are kicked out. To most voters, the Sweden Democrats are now defined not by their origins but by the hundreds of politicians in local and national government. And by Jimmie Akesson, it's 39-year-old leader.
But is this just a respectable veneer? Scratch Akesson, and do you find a racist thug? I was in Sweden over the summer, trying to work this out. My conclusion was that they're populist and (to me) rather sinister. But far-right, neo-Nazi? No. If they were, then a quarter of Swedes would not be supporting them and Akesson, its leader for the last 13 years, would not be polling so high.
A friend, who works for the Swedish government, pointed me to a summer interview series on Swedish radio where Martin Wicklin, a respected Swedish journalist, tries to scratch Akesson's surface (link here, it was broadcast in May). I had it translated and thought I'd republish here, for those seeking to understand a bit more about what's going on there.
Wicklin's interview starts with Akesson's early life: how he grew up in the idyllic countryside. His parents divorced and he moved with his mother to a housing project in a 'million programme area' known for concentration of immigrants. (In Sweden, integration is a far bigger issue than it is in the UK). My thanks to Hanna Valenta for the translation below.
Q: In the SVT program 'Nyfiken på partiledarna' you say that you often had discussions at home about the problems with immigrants from Eastern Europe in the million programme areas. You said: “My parents’ generation felt things changed when these new immigrants came, it wasn't like those who had come earlier, like labour immigrants, this was something new.” You are nodding your head…
A: Yes, I remember discussions about this, people were reacting to the way (the immigrants) were making a lot of disturbing noise, they sort of had another way of living everyday life, they didn't have any work so they were always at home and sat in the park and talked all day and so on… You can say what you like about thinking that is wrong or having an opinion about it, but there were discussions about it... and some form of culture clash that triggered that discussion, but I don't think that this has had such a big impact on my life.
Q: But still it must have made some sort of impact on you… there was quite a lot of criticism… when journalists looked into it and there weren't any immigrants there. When they went through year books from schools to see which people went/lived where... there were no immigrant gangs there they say, what do you have to say about that?
A: Well I have never claimed that there were either, what I said in that interview was that there were groupings of some sort. But then of course people have different memories of how life was… But things happened to me. I remember one time, I was on my way home from school and suddenly two guys my own age with 'that' background ('that' background implies a different ethnic background) suddenly appeared and they jumped me, threw me off my bike, spat on me, and called me SvenskAävel (Swedish fuck), so those kinds of things did happen, but I guess it only happened about once or twice…
Q: And those sort of things had an impact on your life?
A: Well yeah… it was pretty traumatic, I had never experienced anything like that before. I have also heard the same experiences from people with the same political background/ideology as me so it's certainly possible it might have affected me in some way. [...]
Q: So in 1994 you are 15 years old, and a socially interested 15 year old it seems. When people have asked you what your path into politics was, you mention the year 1994. You were a member of the Moderate school youth party and realised that you are not a Moderate. The question about Sweden's membership in the European Union was coming up, and instead you found that is was the Sweden Democrats that appealed to you. What was it that drew you to them?
A: Well most specifically it was the question of the European Union. When I was in the Moderate youth party we could freely discuss the pros and cons of immigration, but I was the only one who was actively against membership of the EU. Then me and my friends started looking for something else… and in the beginning we didn't know that much, I mean there wasn't any internet, we couldn't just Google it. We ended up in the library and looked in the Yellow Pages, the Stockholm part, and then we found the Sweden Democrats and we sent them a fax and asked them for information. And they sent it to me. And what I read there, it was like coming home. They were discussing membership of the European Union and nationalism. I have, ever since I was young, called myself a nationalist in some way. But they were also anti-immigration, they had good policies on crime, everything sort of fell into place. At that time you had to pay to read the political platform of a party, you had to pay the printing costs, so it took a couple of weeks before I finally got to read the whole party platform and a few things stood out to me.
Q: What stood out to you?
A: They were for the death penalty. And they wanted to nationalise banking and insurance.
Q: They were pro forced labour, right…?
A: Yeah that's probably right. There were some strange things in that party platform.
Q: Well, I went back to read the old party platform because I wanted to see what it said, and this part caught my eye: 'The Sweden Democrats want to stop all immigration of people from ethnically distant areas. Great resources must be allocated to send those who came to our country after the year 1970 back to their countries of origin as soon as possible. No consideration should be taken to already granted citizenships. We will submit a suggestion/ recommendation for a new constitution and a new law for citizenship.' I mean, that is very harsh.
A: Yes that is very harsh.
Q: I mean, in theory they want to send everybody home.
Q: And not respect those who have already been granted citizenships.
Q: What were your feelings about that statement then?
A: Well I have never really been able to stand behind that statement. However, I have had to defend that statement because it does say so in our party platform, but at that age I didn't think too much about the details. For me, this was the party platform that wanted to go the furthest regarding immigrants and immigration, the details were less important. What was important was the ideology, it's what caused me to become a member of this party and I have always seen myself as a nationalist and a conservative and this is the party with the most nationalist and conservative values and that's why I ended up there. And then, since day one, I have been working towards improving the party's political platform.
Q: Well yes, that is quite characteristic of the party's values at that time. I mean in the years 94, 95, 96, in the middle of the 90s, there were a lot of Nazi flags, Seig Heils, book burnings and the former chairman of the Sweden Democrats youth party, the guy that you later replaced, was arrested with a sharply loaded hand grenade in Kungsträdgården close to the place where Gudrun Schyman was about to speak... There were quite a lot of those kinds of...
A: But, there is also quite a lot in that description that is not correct.
Q: Really? What?
A: Well, I have never seen a Nazi flag in a party political context for example, the only time I know that that it did exist was in Höör as you mentioned, during the book burnings, but that didn't have anything to do with the party itself. I mean these were people that... When Mikael Jansson took over there were some people with these extremist views that later chose to leave the party. I mean that lady running around in a Nazi uniform in the video footage left the party, she joined a Nazi party later.
Q: Yeah that's right, a couple of years later. But what's interesting about those people, Anders Westergren, Tina Hallgren Bengtsson, the lady you are referring to, I mean those are the people closest to you in Sölvesborg, in Höör, I mean they are helping you, Anders Westergren helped you to start the first local party branch in Sölvesborg so they were very much a core part of the leaders of the Sweden Democrats at that time.
A: Well yes...
Q: And I mean you are in contact with them and so on.
A: Anders Westergren had no part in this, he just happened to lease the property where the book burnings took place.
Q: But he was at the book burning himself…
A: No, he wasn't, he just went to check on them. He is not a Nazi, I know that for a fact. I have known him for over 20 years.
Q: But he let them use his property to burn books with holocaust survivors witness testimonies...
A: Well yes...
Q: I mean that's quite a severe thing…
A: Well he was quite disappointed in them, because he didn't let them use his property for that purpose. And well this lady, Tina, the former politician that he had been in the city council with, asked him if she could host a barbecue in the forest where he was leasing this property and he said yes.
Q: Well what if we put it this way then…
A: No, but I also have to say that I have never met this person with the hand grenade, the SD youth party was founded in 93 and was dissolved in 95 because it didn't work, it was directly infiltrated by Nazis, like this person that you mentioned, I don't even remember his name. Then we founded the youth party branch in 98 and I became the vice chairman.
Q: Well my point is that when I go back to look at how the party was being portrayed in the 90s… I mean you remember this yourself as well, we are of the same generation, I grew up in Stockholm, I saw these Sweden Democrats doing heils and I'm sort of wondering, did all this pass you by without you noticing it? And I mean, how did you relate to that as a young man when you saw those things?
A: What if you thought those were Sweden Democrats when in fact they were not? I mean that's the way I see it, the Sweden Democrats that I was around at that time, with very few exceptions, were quite normal people with very normal opinions, and if it were not for those people I would not still be in this role.
Q: And you were not alarmed or discouraged by the book burnings and Nazi flags and swastikas, I mean there were also swastikas, the group was transforming from Bevara Sverige Svenskt which had very pronounced racist views… it was in that board meeting that it was decided that the Sweden Democrats should be formed…
A: There are many different stories about how the Sweden Democrats was formed, I don't even know which one is correct. These book burnings for example, I am aware that it has happened.
Q: But it is so hard to understand, because the people involved in those (burnings) were the people close to you in Sölvesborg and it’s the same people.
A: Well Anders Westergren did that...
Q: Well how can that have evaded you then?
A: I mean this is not something that… I mean the pictures that you have seen with the book burnings…that was made public many years after it happened and if there were people with extremist views at that time in the party, well it might be so, but we had our own little group in Sölvesborg, we were not extremists.
Q: So you were a conservative nationalist young man that found the most conservative and nationalist party and then you wanted to remove those things that you didn't identify with?
A: Well, yeah…
Q: Well you kind of chose the harder path then. Instead of starting your own party that did not have these extremist values. Did you ever consider that?
A: No. At that time, as soon as you even breathed criticism towards immigration policies you were automatically labelled a racist, and suddenly you had these events in school and we got to hear that this is not the way to behave and you can't have these opinions… I never took those judgements that seriously because I never felt that I was that type of person (racist). If they want to call me that, well then I don't care.
Q: But to choose that path is sort of like choosing a path where many people around you will distance themselves from you and not want to be involved with you. Was that something that ever crossed your mind?
A: No, because it was not like that at all in my life. I was shocked when I later came to Lund to study. No one shared my views. Many people said "why are you doing this, it's pointless”. “Well, maybe it is” I said, but I still want to pursue this and I will do it.
Q: Your conviction is so strong…
A: Yes, and I think that is the way I am as a person. If I decide to do something I do it fully.
Q: So you went to Lund to study at the University, but you also mentioned that you didn't have any expectations from home to choose the academic path, you studied political science, administrative law, philosophy, political economy, social geography... What did you want to do with all those studies?
A: Well I wanted to get a Masters with a major in political science, but then the elections in 2002 came and I felt that this is what I want to pursue and I don't have time to graduate.
Q: You play the piano… the election song that you (the party) released… you were also involved in writing that song?
A: Yes I wrote the lyrics.
Q: 'A country that rises again, women children and men, one country and one people.'
A: 'One people', well that is the nation, and Sweden as a nation today consists of mainly native Swedes and then there are others that are also a part of our nation that may not have a Swedish background but that have assimilated and become a part of the country, and that have contributed to developing our culture.
Q: These 'one people' people… because you call it 'one people' does that include all Swedish citizens in your eyes?
A: Well I don't see the whole Swedish population as the Swedish people…
Q: But in the 'one people' you include those with a different ethnic background? You don't mean Swedish as purely ethnically Swedish?
A: No no, not at all. We promote an open Swedishness. Anyone can become Swedish. Many of my friends that I grew up with were adopted or were children of labour immigrants, so I grew up with that. And I've never viewed the population is something that needs to be biologically pure. For me this 'one people' are the Swedish population that consists of a group of people that has the Swedish nationality in common.
Q: Well I was thinking about something… my son plays soccer in AIK boys 07 and I was watching them yesterday when they were practising they have two amazing coaches called Max and Tobbe, two guys in their 20s and in the team nearly everyone comes from somewhere along the blue line (the blue subway line in Stockholm goes through the immigrant areas Akalla, Tensta, Aärva etc.) so to speak, at least 12 are from a different ethnic background and when I look at these kids I just see harmony, young boys walking with their backs straight with pride knowing that they have one goal, one purpose. I was thinking about that before this interview… what would you have thought looking at that group of kids, and how would it be different from what I saw? Somehow it feels like that this is an example of successful integration…
A: Well yes, sports can have that effect, it brings people with different backgrounds together and in some way that is very good, I think politically we should spend more money on sports and culture for kids/adolescents.
Q: Yeah but I was curious if you had seen the same people (looking at that group of kids)… could those be your 'one people'?
A: Well that's hard to say… I mean we will never be back to Bullerbyn, we will never be back in a situation where all Swedes are blond and blue-eyed and that is not a desirable situation either, or important, my goal is to create a cohesive society without conflicts. If you come to Sweden you have adjust to the majority when it comes to basic norms and values and language, and we need a higher degree of assimilation.
Q: So, if you follow the assimilation principle that you guys have then you can become one of the 'people', is that what you mean? And in that kind of a society there are no differences between people, according to you?
A: No, there are no differences in my eyes.
Q: We talked about your family in the beginning. It also includes three cats, Sparris, Sture and Matz, how come you like cats so much?
A: I've always had cats and when I was a teenager my girlfriend got a cat and I don't think she had talked it through with her parents so in the end I ended up caring for that cat. So the cat moved with me to Lund, her name was Frans (boys name), we thought it was a boy and now I have Matz (boys name), which is also a girl.
Q: Why do you give them boys names?
A: Well the first one we were wrong about it being a boy and then I got Matz, and I thought it was kind of unfair so she got a boy's name as well.
Q: It's kind of odd for being Åkesson...
A: Well maybe, but people think it's kind of funny and it is kind of funny.
Q: The woman you live with, Louise, says that you are a cat person, you have nine lives and you always land on your feet.
A: Yes she says that. I also like to relax and lie on the couch and watch TV, and the cats like the same things.
Q: But what is it about cats that appeal to you?
A: Well, they are individualists, but once they accept you then they are very loyal and I've always treated them as loyal friends. I remember me and Frans used to share a pizza, I don't eat fish or shellfish but still I bought a pizza with shrimp on it that I gave to her and I took the rest. That's the kind of relationship we've always had.
Q: I know you like hard rock as well, you never miss Sweden Rock in Sölvesborg. You mentioned your mother as well, you used to listen to music together?
A: She came with me to Sweden Rock last year actually. I gave that to her as a birthday present when she turned 60 and she got to see The Scorpions that she loves. But we talked about that yesterday actually, people at my office like synthesizer/computer music, and they played a lot of that music at an event we had and Modern Talking was playing and that got me thinking of my mother. I remember when she went to Kos with some friends and played a lot of Modern Talking records when she got back. And I can still feel some kind of excitement when I hear that music.
Q: We are coming to a close in the interview. We always try to find a specific song to round things off – what defines Jimmie Åkesson?
A: If I had to choose just one I would like to hear one that's called 'Atlantis calling (SOS)' [By German duo, Modern Talking: pure cheese]. I like that one.
A: I don't know, I used to listen to it in my headphones when I biked around distributing flyers in the 1998 election campaign. It is a song that you can sing along to in your head.