Monday, 26 October, 2015

Equality Trust supporter Kirsten Downer has just returned from three months living in Sweden. Here she describes what it feels like to live in a more equal society. (Kirsten's full blog can be found here)

I stopped off in Brussels on my way back to the UK from Scandinavia. Within a few hours I encountered more crime, dirt and mentally ill people than I had in the whole previous three months. The noise and stress hit me like a wall.  I realised how much quieter and relaxed life had been in Sweden, even in Stockholm.  I didn’t notice a single argument in the street the whole time I lived there.

It’s easy to take peace for granted, in the same way that in the UK, I’d grown used to loud traffic noise and dirt. So it was shocking to return and notice the sexist adverts, feel the thick dirt over my kitchen utensils, blown in continually from the window.

I don’t want to paint Sweden as utopia; economic changes have widened inequality there too. For instance, you pay a small fee to see a doctor, and most art galleries charge. But I noticed that you don’t need so much disposable income, because key resources are subsidised or free.  Trains are cheap– I booked a last- minute night train for approximately £40 – clean, and safe.   Accommodation is cheaper and more secure.  My artist friends pay approximately £320 per month for their two-bedroom flat.

Cycling is mainstream, even in Stockholm, and this is how I usually travelled, which cost me nothing.  I don’t cycle regularly in London because it’s too dangerous; in Sweden I felt incredibly safe as a cyclist and as a pedestrian. This isn’t accidental – streets have been laid out and policies created which make cycling a viable option.  What I saw in Sweden was that even if you personally didn’t cycle, you benefited; fewer cars meant you didn’t have to shout to make yourself heard, and you could enjoy hanging out in public spaces; it also meant children could safely roam on their own. The fewer cars helped keep the air clean and there was less congestion.

I found the Swedish culture trusting and pragmatic. I didn’t need to read the stats about lower crime rates – this was obvious from the lack of cumbersome bike locks and the numbers of single women using public transport at night.  My friend lives in an affluent part of Stockholm; her block doesn’t lock its back door at night. There was a lack of fences around properties and the ones I did notice were low.

Everyone I talked to about the Swedish system said they were happy that their (relatively high) taxes meant that everyone could have a decent standard of living – I didn’t hear any grudging comments about ‘scroungers’.  I realised this is because Swedes feel that they all benefit from the system. If they are a parent, they get subsidised day care (you pay a nominal fee of @£50 a month) on top of generous maternity and paternity leave.  No-one I spoke to felt the pressure to work long hours.  Someone told me that if you work over 40 hours a week you’re more likely to be considered weird than rewarded.

What this all means is that you can achieve more of your potential – whether you’re a woman, parent, creative person, refugee or student. I want to undertake further study - but I’ve delayed due to the cost. In Sweden, you can do a degree for free.  I met many artists who, thanks to subsidised rents and art studios, earned just enough money without having to take a ‘proper job’.  Women don’t have to choose between having a child or a career. Overall, I found, life is far less of a struggle, and everyone benefits.

Kirsten Downer, Equality Trust supporter

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Equality Trust

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