The other week I was invited by the Norwegian Archives, Libraries and Museums Authority to speak at a conference examining how museums can contribute to inclusion and the building of social capital. Entitled Jo fleire kokkar, jo betre sol it roughly translates as ‘Too many cooks make a better mess’. I spoke about MEAL’s development as a social enterprise, its emphasis on well-being and how broadening participation in heritage has built a sense of belonging and ownership from the community toward the museum. Whilst the notion of museums as a means to promote mental-wellness was quite warmly received, I got the impression the audience were a little nonplussed at the idea of a museum as a social business, providing or enriching care or employment training services (they’re not the only ones!). I think this reflects a general Scandinavian belief that the state provision of services are equitable, and satisfy most people’s needs.
In the UK the trend has been to view the charitable sector is a viable answer to expensive one-size fits all public services, offering cheaper, innovative and more locally accountable provision, providing users with more choice. Here in Norway (and my survey is based only on a few conversations with delegates) there is greater confidence in the state that it manages its institutions effectively and for the common good.
At this conference, Gert Tinggaard Svendsen from Aarhus University spoke about why there were high levels of both economic wealth and social capital in Scandinavia. He likened its social model to a bumble bee – there are high levels of taxation, there are many opportunities for individuals not to contribute to society, to free ride. Yet somehow the creature flies and key to this has been peoples trust that there is, by and large, a fairness in the welfare state.
A telling difference was highlighted in a game Svendsen tried on delegates to illustrate the importance of trust. People were asked to pair up and to split an imaginary 10,000 krone between them. One would make the offer, the other decline or accept, only one offer was permitted with no negotiation. My partner offered me a 20:80 split (in his favour) and I accepted. Most people offered partners 50:50 and virtually all those who suggested an unfair split had their offers rejected. My Anglo-Saxon fear of losing the opportunity of money clearly got the better of any sense of my being exploited whilst my Scandy counterparts clearly felt no money was better that money unfairly shared .
In every survey of well-being Scandinavian Countries come out on top. High levels of trust equate to high levels of social and economic capital. In the latest New Economics Foundation Happy Planet Survey, Norway and Sweden lead European well-being with the UK languishing in the middle of the table. However, comparing the UK to Scandinavia is a bit like comparing apples to pears. Nordic countries (apart from Denmark perhaps) cover large areas, have abundant natural resources and small populations. Yet these countries have used their wealth and resources to shape a society where mutuality and co-operation are common. They have spent the last 60 years building a political consensus, sealing the deal between state and individual. Although the odd conservative government has been elected there has never been a neo-liberal attempt to ‘roll back the state’ as there has been in the UK and US.
A regular refrain regarding UK public services is that we want a Scandinavian level of provision with British levels of taxation. This hopeless denial that services can only be improved by efficiencies and not investment is further compounded in the UK by declining levels of trust towards both the state and other individuals. Polls regularly show suspicion to politics, the public sector and a decline in neighbourliness.
Nevertheless there are abundant opportunities for UK society to build trust using its unique qualities of peculiarity and compromise. Many public services are loved, witness the rallying to the NHS when it was criticised by the American right during recent debates around healthcare. Few countries in Europe have a volunteering traditions like ours. At the conference I described the diverse legion of volunteers at MEAL, who give their time freely to promote heritage and support others. These people, regardless of background or ability feel they all have something of value which they wish to share with others. Volunteering is unheard of in Norway – it is the state’s role to support the vulnerable. The American Sociologist Robert Puttnam notes that societies with large numbers of voluntary groups exhibit similar levels of trust to those societies where there is public support to the state. Social Democracy does not have the exclusive rights to Trust. In highly individualised societies like the US many communities have high levels of trust due to corresponding levels of democratic engagement and religious faith.
In a few months the Museum of East Anglian Life is to open a small exhibition in Great Moulton Chapel, examining how trust was manifest in rural communities at the turn of century. We hope to show that all the ingredients for a good life exist now as they did then, it is how we use them that counts.