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democratic traditions (the s.c.nordic FAQ)
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The home pages for the Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.nordic
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democratic traditions

 

7.2.7 local democratic traditions

If Swedes aren't proud of the violent past with Vikings, wars and conquers then instead the long and strong democratic tradition is a very important part of the cultural heritage.

To trace this tradition is almost impossible, since already in the first written laws (from the 1220s) it seems obvious that the customs are time-honored. Villages had had time at least since the Iron age to develop traditions. To distinguish Sweden's conditions compared to Finland, Denmark or the European continent is also hard, but a few differences are obvious.

While solitarily living families have been more important in parts of Finland and Norway, villages and works are the most prominent communities in Sweden. The Danish tradition is influenced by feudalism and the absence of woods and works. Fishing villages have been of the greatest importance on the long Norwegian coast and on the many Danish islands. These societal differences are usable when one tries to analyze the differences between "national characters" - still one must remember the resemblance is more prominent than the differences.

The Scandinavian peninsula and Finland has had only a rudimentary feudal system. Most land has been owned by commoners paying taxes to the king and without being directs subordinates to any lords. The great forests has made it hard for the lords to pester and punish the commoners.

the village

In Sweden the villages were left to rule themselves without any superior to interfere. Each villages had, until the 19:th century, one fenced field precisely marked in shares for each property. (On the rich plains some villages had two or even three fenced fields where the crops were changed systematically, but in these cases each farm had property on each field. Actually these rich plains were also exceptional inasmuch feudal lords could have significant influence over decisions of "their" villages.)

Outside of the fence the cattle had to graze between sowing and harvest. The farmers were responsible for one part each of the fence. The fence was the most important subject the villagers had to cooperate about, but as the field was organized it was also practically and often necessary to do the work coordinated on the same days. The village meeting had to discuss and decide about this, but also about the use of woods, fishing water, common roads, boats and herding.

The village meeting was however not for crofters or other poor. Instead it often regulated how many lodgers the village could feed, forcing people to move. (From the oldest written laws there is an important distinction between the former owners of a farm and other poor. The law forced the elderly to transfer their land to the next generation when their physical strength weakened, but the law also forced the new owner to support the previous for their remaining time in life. Conflicts regarding this duties were common cases at the Thing.)

The main rule was, that changes in the statues for a villages were to be accepted by all farmers unanimous. The statues could however stipulate that other decisions were to be made by a majority. Unanimity was however the basic rule for how decisions were to be made at meetings in villages and parishes.

This tradition of unanimous decisions must have contributed to the Swedish custom of adjustment of ones attitudes to the perceived majority. Unanimous decisions demand a high degree of compromises from the individuals.

the þing

The pre-Christian culture was a tribe culture like many other of the pre-Christian cultures among the indo-Europeans. The members of a tribe were obliged to avenge injuries against their dead and mutilated relatives. A balancing structure is necessary to hinder tribe fights to lead to anarchy destructing the society. In the North-Germanic cultures the balancing institution was the Thing ("ting" or "þing"). The Thing was the assembly of free men in an area, as in a hundred ("härad") or in a province / county ("landskap"), at which disputes were solved and political decisions were made. Before Christianity chieftains where at the same time political and religious leaders, with the main purpose to bring the people good times ("fred" - nowadays actually the word for peace). The place for the Thing ("tingsplats") was often also the place for public religious rites, and sometimes the place for commerce.

The þing met at regular intervals, legislated, elected chieftains and judged according to the law recited and memorized by the law speaker. The þing's negotiations were presided by the chieftain or often by the law speaker. In reality the þing was of course dominated by the most influential members of the community, but in theory one-man one-vote was the rule.

Gotland, as an example, had in late medieval time twenty Things, each represented at the island-Thing (landsting) by its elected judge. (The judge also conducted the local Thing.) New laws were decided at the landsting, which also took other decisions regarding the island as a whole. The landsting's authority was successively eroded after the island being occupied by the Tyska Orden (the "German Order") 1398, then sold to Erik of Pomerania and after 1449 ruled by Danish governors.

In late Swedish medieval time the Thing-court consisted of twelve representatives for the farmers (free-holders or tenants).

the king

An important function of the king or the chieftain was (probably) to distribute of his own luck to all of the people. Therefore men with much luck were ideal kings. The people were dependent of good luck in many aspects: good harvests, good trade, good hunting, good fishing and no attacks from enemies.

In case of bad times the people could sacrifice their leader (before Christianity literally!), or maybe less violently select another leader. As the Christian missionaries then convinced the most respected among the Viking magnates, an abyss opened between the ordinary agrarian people an their converted magnates; and the old order was disrupted.

Free peasants who were used to participate in the decision making in the village, in the province and in the realm did not easily accept to be left unquestioned when the Svea kingdom expanded.

The Engelbrecht rebellion is probably the best picture we can get of how kings had been elected in older times. Engelbrecht was elected to captain for Dalarna where he and the people had promised each other allegiance, then he went to Västmanland, where the people summoned to the "tingsplats" expressed their support and allegiance, then to Uppland where Engelbrecht and the people promised each other allegiance, then to Östergötland, where the procedure was repeated, and then to Västergötland where he was honored by the people, then to Halland (the part which at that time was identified with Götaland and Sweden). All this occurred in the end of the summer 1434. In January 1435 a diet appointed Engelbrecht as captain for the Swedish realm, and as such he that year negotiated with the union-king - with poor result. In response to demands from the country a new diet was summoned in 1436 where Engelbrecht was elected king. As king he requested the people in Stockholm to swear allegiance. The Stockholmians (most of whom were Germans) had to choose between a battle and a new king, and accepted the new king.

The nobility's exemption from land tax after 1280 had the consequence that farmers pawned or sold their land to the noble bailiffs. Also the Church's exemption from tax in year 1200 had in practice the same effect. Subsequently the crown's tax incomes diminished, and strong royal rulers as Magnus Eriksson and Queen Margrete tried to hinder this development.

after the medieval time

During the 16th century a lot of land was taken by the state from parishes and convents. These lands were then often transferred to the nobility, particularly from 1567 to 1680, which had important consequences for the peasants. Tenant farmers on state property could be forced to do extra work in addition to the law-regulated taxes, which was a less favorable situation than for farmers owning their own land, but farmers on land sold/given to noble masters had additionally lost their right to participation in the elections of peasant representatives at the diets.

Works (bruksorter) is the contrasting element, organized in much as a manorial estate, where the owner had the duty to act as a good master in a strictly hierarchical household. The works was a closed society, taking responsibility for the people living there from the cradle to the grave. United the people could express their wishes and propositions, and a wise master would not act against the best of the people. But the power was his. Many masters of works were descendents of nobilitated industrialists from Walloonia invited in the early 17th century.

The rules of order at democratic meetings got changed in the 19:th century. The villages were split, many farmers' houses were moved away from the village, each farm got it's field separated from the others, and the village meeting became obsolete. The traditions from the higher assemblies, where the majority ruled, were found fit for the parishes also, particularly when these came to grow due to the urbanization. With the Free Churches, the Temperance movement and the workers unions foreign influences were added to the old traditions.

Today fairness and equality are important parts of the order at a meeting. The word is given to speakers in the order they have asked for it, no-one is to be unfairly favored. The assembly and the chair are not supposed to interrupt the speaker, unless he/she breaks any decided rules (as a time limit) or humiliates others. All who wish to speak are entitled to do so prior to the voting, all are entitled to put propositions forward, all propositions are to be equally handled (almost!), and in case of the majority taking a position one feel impossible to take responsibility for, then all are entitled to get ones dissentient opinions taken to the records.

But still traces of the unanimity tradition is visible in the attitude that people who suspect they belong to a minority should better not utter their opinion - to the best of all - in order to reinforce the feeling of unity and unanimity. ...and after a decision all participants are expected to advocate the opinion of the majority - whatever they thought before.

 

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7.2.8 free access to official documents

The history of the Rights of Free Expression is dialectic and full of contradictions. From 1718 to 1844 the liberties of thought and the parliament's right to decide over laws and wars were hot topics in Sweden as in the rest of Europe, many times leading to changes of rulers: 1680 the common estates of the parliament handed over all power to the king, in reaction against the nobility. 1720 the parliament made the king almost powerless after Karl XII:s failed wars. 1756 the king was made really powerless after a failed coup d'etat. However 1772 the king succeeded in a coup d'etat and the parliament approved a new constitution. 1789 the king again gained dictatorship which is abolished in a revolution 1809 and laws are again to be agreed on by the king and the majority of the estates.

Surprisingly it lasted until the 1760s until the politicians took up serious debates regarding legal guarantees for the freedom of the press. Until then the ruling party had gained from the advantages of power and secrecy, and used this to suppress its enemies as much as they could, and when another party gained majority, it did the same. But after the royal court's failed coup 1756 the royalists and the big opposition party in the parliament found each other in the wish to gain knowledge about the government's actions. And when the parliament majority changed, Freedom of the Press and the public's free access to official documents ("offentlighetsprincipen") were decided after English model and given constitutional status.

Although it lasted until 1809 before the free access to official documents had become more than lip service by the bureaucracy, and another 30 years before the Freedom of the Press could be used for critics of the king and his government without acts of reprisal, these aspects are now understood as very important foundations for a working democracy.


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In 1831 the newspaper Aftonbladet is founded by Lars Johan Hierta in Stockholm, important because of its struggle to increase the freedom of the press. The king, Karl XIV Johan, at the time had the right to retract permissions to publish newspapers. When Aftonbladet criticized the king, he retracted the publish rights - but the paper immediately reappeared as "The Second Aftonbladet", "The Third Aftonbladet" and all the way to the "28th Aftonbladet". 1838 the civil service officer responsible for revocal of the governmental license declares this method unfit and useless, and 1844 it's also formally abolished.

Since then the free access to official documents is understood as a right for any citizen to request a list of received and sent documents from any state authority (after the 1930s also municipal authorities) and then immediately look at (or receive copies of) single documents unless these necessarily are to be kept secret, according to special laws, in order to protect:

Of course it could be argued that these exceptions can be made wide and very wide, but it's important that it is the governmental agency which has to prove its right to keep a document secret, if a case goes to court, and that the constitution clearly express that exceptions to the main rule are to be scrupulously specified. The definition of "document" is wide including pictures, sound records and other messages which can be comprehended by means of technical aids.

If officials want their private letters to be secret, then they must be sent to their private address. But if letters regarding the authority are sent privately to officials, then they must be taken to the office. Documents which are in the process of production are however not available for the public until they are sent or used for a decision by the authority.

Today this principles is among them which by Swedes are perceived as the most differing in comparison with other cultures. One of the most commons points of suspicions among Swedes against the European Union, which Sweden entered 1995, is the fear that lack of access to documents of the Union's authorities not only harm the democracy in the European Union, but even worse that Sweden might be affected and the Swedish democratic society will be severely harmed.

 

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7.2.9 School system

Children start school at the age of six or seven. The compulsory education (Grundskolan) spans nine years with the pupil finishing junior high school (högstadiet) at the age of fifteen or sixteen.

High schools (Gymnasier) provide a broad selection of study courses / programs ranging from vocational university-preparatory, to lasting three or four years.

One year in pre-school (förskola) and three years in high school is what virtually all pupils complete, although this is not required. A few years ago all high school programs were made to last at least three years in order to make all pupils formally entitled to university studies.

Many children also attend kindergarten (daghem). When both parents work, another option exists. The parents may have their child taken care of by a municipality-employed "nanny" (dagmamma - literally "day mother"). The child stays in her private home, usually together with 2-3 other children).

As a rule all children attend public schools. Private schools are rare, and those that exist often have a specific educational philosophy or religious affiliation. The degree of governmental financing of private schools has been changed several times in the 1990s. Currently it is usual for municipalities to pay about 80% of their average cost per pupil for those attending private schools.



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- Is the text above really reliable?
- See the discussion in section 1.2.2!
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© Copyright 1996-2001 by Johan Olofsson.
You are free to quote this page as long as you mention the URL.
The line of flags is modified after a picture at det Åländska skoldatanätet.
This page was last updated June the 27th in the year of 1998.

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