One Nation Labour and its Swedish roots

Written by: Katrine Kielos on 6 February, 2013
Filed under Economy

During his conference speech in Manchester in October, Ed Miliband said the words ‘One Nation’ 46 times. By using the phrase made famous by the Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Miliband was not only rolling his tanks onto the Conservatives Party’s lawn, he was also trying to claim the mantle of national unity for Labour.

To a Swede like myself the strategy seemed familiar. For eighty years the term ‘the people’s home’ (Folkhemmet) was the most powerful idea in Swedish politics. Just like ‘One Nation’, it was a concept first used by the right. But the Social Democrats claimed it as their own in the 1920’s and it went on to become the foundation for decades of social democratic rule in Sweden. Even today, it is what most Swedes immediately associate with social democracy.

The term ‘the people’s home’ was frequently used by the most influential Swedish nationalist of the time, Rudolf Kjellén. The concept was central to his movement’s critique of liberal capitalist society. Capitalism and liberalism tore up the fabric of the country at the expense of unity and security, the argument went. It was a powerful one. In many parts ofEuropethis critique became the foundation on which fascist movements were built.

Per Albin Hansson, who became leader of the Social Democratic Party in 1928 and went on to become Prime Minister twice in four governments between 1932 and 1946, recognised the need to fight this. The Social Democrats could not be perceived as disloyal to the national interest. What Hansson did by taking the term ‘the people’s home’ from the right and claiming it as his own was a case of what today’s political consultants would call ‘reframing’.

A political frame, just like a picture frame, holds things together and provides coherence to an array of images, symbols and arguments. It does this through an underlying idea that tells us what consequences and values are at stake. Every frame gives the advantage to certain ways of thinking and talking while placing others ‘out of the picture’.

When in 1921 Hansson said ‘there is no more patriotic party than [the Social Democrats] since the most patriotic act is to create a land in which all feel at home’, he was taking the term ‘patriotic’ and putting it in another frame. ‘National unity’ can be spoken of as a project that brings people of a specific ethnicity together, or it can be spoken of as a project that creates an equal society that doesn’t divide people. In other words, these are two very different ‘frames’ that make people think in very different ways.

The iconic explanation of the concept of ‘the people’s home’ is contained in a speech Hansson gave in 1928:

“The basis of the home is community and togetherness. The good home does not recognise any privileged or neglected members, nor any favourite or stepchildren. In the good home there is equality, consideration, co-operation, and helpfulness. Applied to the great people’s and citizens’ home this would mean the breaking down of all the social and economic barriers that now separate citizens into the rich and the poor, the propertied and the impoverished, the plunderers and the plundered. Swedish society is not yet the people’s home. There is a formal equality, equality of political rights, but from a social perspective, the class society remains and from an economic perspective the dictatorship of the few prevails.”

Modern research into metaphors and how our minds work tells us that it’s no coincidence that political metaphors based on the home and family are so powerful. George Lakoff argues in Moral Politics that these metaphors come naturally to us in a political context because our earliest experience with being governed is in the family.

So it’s not surprising that our political beliefs are structured around the same concepts. ‘The people’s home’ is an expression that carries a political vision in itself. When you say that a nation should be like a home you automatically imply that the values of the family should be at its core. We are not on our own; we have a responsibility to ourselves and to each other and we should organise our economy and society around this fact. Solidarity, togetherness, co-operation and consideration are all evoked.

For the last three decades the right has been undermining this way of thinking. Where Per Albin Hansson was applying the values of the home to the market, the right has been applying the values of the market to everything else – including the home.

The idea animating much of neo-classical economics is that everything can be explained (and governed) using the logic of the market. When the Chicago School economist Gary Becker first started to express these thoughts in the late 1970s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault said in a famous lecture that not even the new right of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan could possibly take such aggressive economic imperialism seriously. Thirteen years later, in 1992, Becker was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.

Becker’s definition of economics – that it was a logic that could be applied to all of existence – had become almost universal. Bestselling books like Freakonomics now teach us how to apply the logic of the market to every part of our lives. New Public Management was founded on the same line of thought, as were much of the public sector reforms undertaken during the 1990’s. The values of the market are assumed to be ‘neutral’ and therefore not up for debate.

When Ed Miliband talks about ‘One Nation Britain’ he is challenging this and trying to accomplish what Per Albin Hansson did when he introduced ‘the people’s home’. Miliband is bringing morality and values back into the discussion about how the economy works, and he is doing this through an appeal to national unity and belonging. It’s a longing that could just as easily be exploited by the radical right. The aim of the left must be to ‘reframe’ in terms of the need for greater equality and solidarity.

A longer version of this article has previously appeared in Renewal.