The skies over the Baltic are blue as a tiny plane lands at Visby Airport on the Swedish island of Gotland. It is July 2006, and on board is the man who will soon lead Sweden for the next eight years, Fredrik Reinfeldt.
Next to him is his party chairman and PR guru; Per Schlingmann is a man without whom the last eight years of Swedish history may well have been quite different. The two politicians from the centre-right Moderate party have a plan for their country, but to seize Sweden they have to begin their attack in the Baltic sea.
As the plane taxis to a halt a few miles north of the Gotlandic capital, the mediaeval streets of the old fortress city are already busy with people. These are not just tourists though. For a week each summer Gotland becomes the destination of choice for the great and the good in Swedish politics and public life.
This peculiar annual migration has its roots in a speech made by the iconic former Social Democratic Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1968. Palme, then just about to take the reins at the peak of social democracy’s dominance of 20th century Sweden, climbed onto the back of a lorry and began to address members of the public gathered in Almedalen, a park in the shadow of Visby’s looming fortifications.
It was the beginning of a trend that would put Gotland on the map, creating a tradition that has become a highpoint of the political calendar. Each year, the ‘Almedalen Week’ gives each of the eight parliamentary parties in the Swedish legislature a platform to discuss politics, unveil policies and sun themselves in the cool Baltic summer.
It was at Almedalen in 2006 that the ‘Alliance for Sweden’, a coalition of centre-right parties led by Reinfeldt, prepared itself for power. Under the expert guidance and branding of Schlingmann they created a united front to beat the Social Democrats and ruled for eight years, transforming the country in the process. It marked the beginning of a long winter for the left in Sweden, a period from which they have not yet full emerged. Gotland can be a harsh environment outside of summer. Off its northern tip lies the island of Fårö, where Ingmar Bergman chose to live in relative seclusion. His two films Fårö Document and Fårö Document 1979 portray the yearly cycle of the landscape and its people, the end of the farming economy and an increasing sense of isolation from and friction with the modern world. With its pebble beaches, weather-beaten stacks and sea winds it transforms into a colourless landscape, the sea turning black under grey skies, and icing as it hits the shore.
Escape to hyper-reality
In July and August though the population explodes, no more so than in Almedal week. Flights and ferries are fully booked, finding a bed is nigh on impossible and the elite come out to play in the sunshine. The streets are filled with lobbyists, arms dealers, journalists, activists and politics junkies. They rub shoulders as they move from champagne receptions to speeches, with venues and groups in hot competition to attract the right kind of people to their event.
In 2012 the Swedish rapper Timbuktu played a free set for the Swedish Green Party before their co-leader took to the stage to talk about climate change. In 2014 Per Schlingmann and the former international aid minister took part in an outdoor DJ battle against their Social Democrat opposition rivals in the warm northern twilight. On the same latitude as northern Scotland, the light and warmth lingers and the bars close as the sun comes round again.
The sense of dislocation created by transplanting Stockholm to Gotland means that the rules change too as the island becomes a dreamlike version of everyday politics. It is a self-consciously exclusive event, relying on the media to relay it back over the water to the mainland.
Hanna Lundqvist, a writer for the magazine of the Swedish Union of Journalists, says that without the media to communicate it, the whole phenomenon would not function.
“Without the media presence the whole week would not really reach out to many people beyond the mix of politicians and representatives for the various organisations, agencies and campaigning organisations actually present in Visby.”
Neither is Almedalen the week-long party its critics sometimes portray it as, she says.
“It has become the thing to criticise the wine receptions in Visby, and the close relationship between the powerful and the people supposed to watch them, especially lobbyists. There are a few shocking examples, but most journalists there actually toil away for most of the day.”
Outside of the wine receptions and after-parties there are those less welcome in the sunny microcosm of the real Sweden created by the island. Unfortunately for those wishing to escape normal politics, the problems of contemporary Sweden are still present in Gotland.
Swedish pluralism means that the far-right are now a fixture on the seminar lists and media schedules. In the September elections the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats won thirteen per cent of the votes, and amongst the champagne networking events and Q&As they can no longer be ignored. Within the neat borders of the island, the increasingly mainstream nature of extremist politics is all too plain to see.
The far right in Sweden has built itself on nostalgia for a white Swedish golden age, and on an image of Sweden that is both insular and superior. According to the Swedish academic Maria Wendt, Associate Professor in Politics at Stockholm University, nationalism is visible amongst all the parties in Gotland.
“It strengthens the already symbiotic relationship between politicians and journalists … During Almedalen week, nationalism is always surprisingly prominent. Politicians and the media are strikingly unanimous in their belief that ‘we’ are especially democratic, successful and equal in ‘our’ nation.”
This exceptionalism is nothing new and was already established Palme’s time, standing atop a trailer in 1968. Although firmly internationalist, Sweden has fostered and cultivated the idea of the people’s home or folkhem. Invented by the Social Democrats as a metaphor for the mutual cooperation of family in society, it used the nation as a frame for left wing politics – a kind of civic nationalism. It was the same phenomenon that let Fredrik Reinfeldt launch his Alliance for Sweden project in Gotland, standing not atop a trailer but on a carefully choreographed stage, a potential father of the nation like Palme before him. Swedish progress and Swedish exceptionalism go hand in hand, no more so than in the idyllic surroundings of the Gotlandic summer.
Retreat to the nation.
Palme was cut down by an unknown assassin in 1986, whilst Reinfeldt departed quietly in September after hæmorrhaging votes to the far right. What the future holds for Sweden depends very much on who talks loudest and who can seize the agenda in the summers to come. In the brave new world of modern Sweden, what plays out in the hyper-real political theatre of Visby will have real consequences over the water in the remains of the people’s home.
This autumn has seen Russian submarines in the Baltic and a Social Democrat at the helm again, but the certainty of Olof Palme’s secure future is long gone. With voters rejecting the world outside, the nation could be on the way to being as insular as the island it retreats to.
Header photograph by Marcus Johnson, Leanderfotograf.
Dominic Hinde is an academic, journalist and translator, specialising in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. More information can be found here.