19 August 2008 **** Go to Front Page

Madeleine Bunting's awful lunch in Finland

By Tapani Lausti

Madeleine Bunting is an interesting journalist and a stimulating analyst. Most often her articles in The Guardian are thought-provoking and even when one disagrees with her, one comes out of the experience at least slightly intellectually enriched.

I was then surprised and puzzled by her article We may admire the Nordic way, but don't try to import it (15 August 2008; see letters in response). She pits British individualism against Nordic "consensual authoritarianism". She writes that "it's not hard to see [that] this conformity can also be stiflingly oppressive". In her caricature, Finland becomes a country where people dare only whisper in restaurants and are oppressed by "unquestioning assumptions of how things should be".

Bunting fails to see that every country — Britain included — has codes of conduct and belief systems that can be irritating for the free human spirit. But the Finland she describes sounds like the 1950s. Things have moved on since. During the last few decades assumptions have been questioned in a dramatic way. Very few have been left unquestioned.

Bunting's attitude towards equality and welfare state seems ambivalent. I could not understand whether Bunting likes an egalitarian society or not. She quotes Andrew Brown's book on Sweden called Fishing in Utopia. In it Brown writes about "the Scandinavian code of egalitarian conformity which absolutely forbids anyone to feel superior to their neighbours". This is an odd way to describe a culture which has a large degree of decent solidarity. Britain would be a nicer place if it had more of this kind of spirit.

Bunting writes that the Nordic conformism "struggles to cope with cultural diversity, and at its worst, it can even begin to sound like racism". Is she saying that Britain is a multicultural success and has no racism? I think Finland has improved hugely during the last ten or so years in coping with a growing immigrant population. Younger Finns especially are often excited by the new multicultural development. One thing which helps is that the Finns do not have the kind of superiority towards the rest of the world which so often distorts British journalism.

For me Britain has always seemed to be a country ill at ease with itself. After 18 years of mostly enjoyable life there I felt strangely relieved to leave. Spain, where I have lived for almost eight years now, is for me a much more pleasant country to live in. So is Finland, as my British partner would agree. She could not understand what Bunting's piece was trying to say about Finland. She has been visiting the country regularly for twenty years.

Bunting writes about her anarchic children who might have irritated Finnish lunchers. OK, I know nothing about her offspring. However, I like the Andalucian lively, rowdy children who are still capable of eating in restaurants together with adults in an amazingly egalitarian and peaceful manner. Not so with many visiting British families who cannot decide whether children should be loved or hated. Children seem to be undecided about their parents, as well. I would not describe the result as anarchic, more often it seems like the result of authoritarian parenting.

OK, enough generalisations. We all write bad articles occasionally. Maybe this is one of mine. But I was provoked.

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