"Be Like Sweden!"
Tempting as models in other countries may be, here is not there.
In 2004, two researchers - Raghabendra Chattopadhyay (a public policy professor) & Esther Duflo (an economist) - published the results of a study they had undertaken in the Indian province of West Bengal. In 1992, the Indian government had initiated constitutional reform which reserved one-third of the Panchayati Raj, or local councils, for women leaders.
However, herein lies the rub: the constitutional reform mandated that the local area councils to which this policy would be apply, would be selected by lottery. They randomised the intervention, and in doing so prevented the potential for reverse causality, i.e., that more progressive local areas would elect a female leader. In circumstances where female leaders correlated with a more progressive local population, it would be more difficult to establish whether having female leaders made any difference independent of background factors. Selecting the Panchayati Raj at random negated this potential confounder.
In fact, Chattopadhyay & Duflo found that there were significant differences in key social policies in the Panchayati Raj with female heads. Using data from Bengal and Rajasthan, they found that having female leaders led to a more equitable provision of water services and other social services.
Does such data demonstrate that female political leaders are more equitable in social policy? To think so would be to fall prey to simple extrapolation, the assumption that the results of an experiment hold true invariantly, across circumstances. But simple extrapolation is often a simple fallacy; the effects of the same exposure, same experiment, or same concept, are not homogenous across populations. While it is reasonable to infer that the increase in equitable distribution of public services resulted from the election of female leaders, this is only true insofar as the context in which it occurred. Context matters. Culture matters.
The example of Chattopadhyay & Duflo’s research was highlighted in an editorial discussing the concept of circumstantial causality in the context of randomised controlled trials. The author, economist Kaushik Basu of Cornell University, underscored that myriad background factors would all play a role in giving operation to the relationship between the election of female leaders and more equitable social services distribution, in the specific context in which it occurred. Basu described all of these background factors as a bundle of traits, or 'T'. Since there is no way of describing in full exactly what 'T' constitutes, there would be no way of knowing or assuming that the results in Bengal and Rajasthan would hold anywhere else.
As a case in point, over-extrapolations abounded last year during the first wave of the Covid-19 lockdowns, when a number of nations with female leaders - e.g., New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan - were all seen to deal with the pandemic well, putting public health before private enterprise. But compared to what, and whom? Boris Johnson and Donald Trump? And in what background contexts, what 'T' in Germany, Taiwan, or New Zealand, allowed for their effective operation? The commentariat descended into female stereotypes of 'compassion' and 'care givers', neither term of which would be suitable to male leaders Scott Morrison of Australia or Prayut Chan-o-cha of Thailand, yet both countries hold exemplary records in handling the pandemic, as do male leaders Nguyễn Xuân Phúc of Vietnam and Chung Sye-kyun of South Korea.
Even if we were to move beyond comparisons between male and female leaders in responding to the pandemic, to consider whether female leaders are in fact more benevolent rulers, this would flounder in different contexts of 'T'. It may be that many of the countries with female leaders during the pandemic have background 'T' characteristics that are more egalitarian. But that would not apply in the UK. Thatcherism spawned the most feral and brutal form of capitalism which has decimated communities throughout Britain, while Theresa May went from right-wing xenophobe with Windrush to an incompetent clown with Brexit. If any argument could be made that Nordic and Central European female leaders are ethical and egalitarian, an equal argument could be made that female British leaders are callous and bigoted. Context matters. Culture matters.
One interesting historical theory of the more accepted egalitarian approach in Scandinavian countries is that the people settling those harsh climates and regions would have required cooperation, a need for society as a whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. Going it alone could have meant perishing. Did those early communities develop a bundle of traits - 'T' - that became a cultural norm, entrenched over generations to create 'T' today that is compatible with social democracy and other tenets of the Scandinavian model? Who knows. Since we have no way of knowing or describing in full what 'T' is in that context, we are left to view the organisation of society in those countries for what it is: a specific context and culture.
'Culture' has become a tainted word lately, particularly in a European context where it is erroneously assumed to be a synonym for a very narrow, nativist, Euro-centric ideology. But that isn't what it means. All culture means, in fact, is 'T': the set of traits and characteristics making up a group of peoples in a particular place. People adopt 'T' all the time. In the 12th Century, as Ireland was being brought under the English crown, the Norman settlers over a few brief generations were said to have become "more Irish than the Irish themselves", having adopted the Gaelic language, forming clans, and adopting other Gaelic cultural practices. Culture is dynamic. This holds as true today as it did in the 12th Century, only the scope now extends to the entire world.
So why does any of this matter? In a world where the supranational structures of the post-World War 2 period are unravelling, where globalisation is being rejected by demoralised workforces in Western industrialised countries, a reemphasis on the nation state is happening whether liberals like it or not. The problem isn't the concept of a nation state, it is the fact that most liberals have their own narrow, misconceived view of what a nation state means. They see it as synonymous with the kind of 19th and 20th Century nationalism that upended the Continent, and the world, repeatedly for a century. The issue of recent years is that liberals don't want to touch the concept, leaving it to be co-opted instead by right-wing rhetoric.
But it needs to be grasped, seized, and owned, to shape any future from the present. This isn't a call to abandon internationalism; it's a reality check that the concept of the nation-state serves a purpose. And it is a reality check for liberals that the solutions to domestic issues don't lie in the model of another nation. The assumption that, for example, the Scandinavian model could simply apply in the UK does not hold; classism and elitism define British culture far more than egalitarianism. Any solutions to the current predicament the UK - or any country - finds itself in, will only ever come from within, because those are the only solutions that inherently account for the intangible 'T' of that place.
And because 'T' in the UK does include holdover elements of classism and elitism from a bygone age, the project of reimagining the nation state in the UK means the nation state as it is today.
And if this reimagining of the nation as it exists today doesn't happen, if liberals don't engage with this needed exercise, then they leave the door open to the right-wing ideologue narrative of an imagined nation state of yesterday. And that fantasy is certainly narrow, nativist, populist, and maladaptive.