Every country has its bizarre political traditions. The UK has more in the House of Commons than most countries have in total. But Sweden must have one of the sweetest and very old-fashioned political traditions – Goran Persson’s annual speeches at the Folkets Park in Björkvik, in the countryside somewhere between Nyköping and Norrköping. This year’s speech was Sunday 7th August. Persson is the local boy made good, and he returns to his home region at the end of the summer break to give a prognosis on the state of the country. Well, that’s the idea anyway. (Read the rest and scroll down to see photos)
You head off the main road onto a small country road that goes through small villages of red-painted wooden houses, over small stagnant rivers, and rolling hills of crops flattened by the incessant rain. Mysteriously you come across a traffic jam kilometres from everything, but the cars are parking in a damp field. The majority are Volvos and Saabs here – we are in the countryside after all.
The locals spill out of their cars, the vast majority of them in their sixties or older, many using the typical rullators* and clutching collapsible chairs that are aligned in semi-circles in front of a tent with a fat man playing a piano accordion. While the oldies take their seats, those of us that are slightly more energetic mill around and play darts or buy raffle tickets. I am on a bit of a roll with my social democrat raffles at the moment – London Eye tickets at the Ferndale Ward raffle, a T-Shirt at the Young Fabians’ boat party, and 2 small furry animals at Bj√∂rkvik!
The police are there in force. There can’t be much more important happening in Sörmland on a Sunday in August! As the families amble towards the small huts to buy the kids a hotdog, the Foreign Minister, Laila Freivalds, wanders into the park, followed by a body guard who stands out quite ludicrously. He’s dressed far too smartly to be in a field in the country! Some people talk to the foreign minister, and a student from Belarus gives her a letter. But it’s all very relaxed and civil.
As an old woman with quite a terrible voice takes to the stage to sing along with the man on the piano accordion, the main man arrives. The sun sparkles through a gap in the clouds, shining on his balding head. A small crowd gathers around the Prime Minister – quite an imposing character, but he could probably do with losing a couple of kilograms. The old woman sings a song to Persson that I am told sums up what has happened in the last year. It has a line about Tony Blair in the song, but that’s the limit of my understanding.
Persson then starts off his speech with a long discussion of terrorism – quite typcial I suppose, bearing in mind what has happened in London this summer. But I cannot possibly imagine a place that feels as far away from London in political terms as Björkvik!
The lectern behind which Persson stands is thankfully large and strong. He spreads his hands on the side of it and proceeds to lecture the crowd. It’s impossible for me to know whether it is just because they are all so old, or because he is quite dull and speaks slowly, but there is very little life in the crowd throughout. A few muted claps, and one laugh about a story of him collecting mushrooms.
After 40 minutes he is done, and makes his way to the exit. The oldies pack up their chairs, people have some brief conversations, and the Volvos and Saabs file out of the field and head off back into the countryside, all I hope somewhat the wiser after Persson’s speech.
The media have since been speculating about his future. This was not the speech of a man with fire in his belly, ready to take on Reinfeldt and the right-wing parties at next year’s election. Let’s hope there was something potent in those mushrooms he was picking!
* The rullator – pictured – is a typical Swedish invention for old people. It basically constitutes a zimmer frame on wheels, with a seat on the top and brakes that can be applied to slow it down.
Pictures from Björkvik – contact me if for some reason you want better quality versions!