I have done two highly contrasting trips in the past few months. First Italy and then Sweden. In both cases, the trips were prompted by other things but I used them to research a new book I am writing about welfare states around the world.
What contrasts! Too many to describe. In Italy, welfare policy starts with the expectation that the family is at the centre of things and should be the first institution to offer welfare to its members.
In Sweden, the freedom of the individual to live as she (or he) wants is considered extremely important. And so the benefits are very different and the outcomes are too. Which is better? That’s not easy to answer.
I was in Stockholm on two utterly beautiful, June summer evenings. I strolled alongside the river and across a bridge. I ate at restaurants with lovely views of trees, the water and charming old buildings. At that time of year, it seems an urban paradise. Around me were hundreds of people eating, drinking and looking as happy as can be. And yet one person there told me that Stockholm has the highest rate of single person households of any city in the world. So is lovely Stockholm, for many of the residents, the loneliest City in the world?
I asked about social housing in Sweden and was told of a particular housing estate which was meant to be bad. So I asked a taxi driver who was taking me to a conference to do a detour and show me this estate. If this is bad by Swedish standards, I would love to see good. Yes, the buildings are somewhat monolithic. After a bit of a search, I did find a little graffiti but it was rather old and faded. There were obviously plenty of immigrants there, but they behaved in a totally civilised, unthreatening way. It is away from the centre but it did not seem a bad place at all.
Sweden is moving ahead fast with allowing private competition in both healthcare and education. It is being far bolder than Britain.
Both countries have begun taking steps to stop their pension systems going bust. They may not have done enough but they have made a start. I think this is going on all over the world.
Recording and absorbing all that I saw and heard took quite a long time. Now I have to get on and commission research from others and also dig out key international statistics. Then, in the autumn, I need to make more trips. Definitely on the list are the Netherlands, the USA, Singapore and Australia. I must also visit at least one Eastern European country – perhaps Poland – and perhaps also Germany and Switzerland. It is a question of how many can be visited usefully in the limited time before I have to start writing while at the same time commissioning and absorbing research by others.