In my column last week, I wrote about Oscar and Greta Björk, representing the ordinary Swedes who built the ‘folkhemmet’, the welfare state, and a fairer social and economic system of the land. It was not built by the leaders, or the upper-class, certainly not. It was built by the people from below, with a true vision of the social democratic leaders of the landat the time, they, too, ordinary people, including Per Albin Hansson (party leader and PM in the years between the two world wars) and Tage Erlander (party leader and PM for two decades after WWII). Unlike most Social Democratic Party leaders, Hansson and Erlander had university degrees and they were active in student politics before joining ‘adult politics’. But most of the socialisation and training took place in the Social Democratic Party, a pragmatic, moderate labour party. The term ‘socialism’ was a slogan and ideal rather than a practical guideline, and perhaps sometimes used more by students and party youth wingers than those in power. But Hansson’s father was a mason and his mother a house made; Erlander’s father was a school teacher and his mother came from a family of ‘forest Finns’ who had emigrated from Finland.

Since both leaders came from ordinary backgrounds they were able to understand better the needs and requirements, dreams and aspirations, of ordinary people, the masses of the land that they represented. They remained humble and ordinary, never forgetting their roots, and at the same time, they were also leaders of the industrialists, ship owners, the capitalists, the small and medium size private sector company owners, the farmers and peasants, and others in all classes and spheres of life. Yes, including women, who were mostly housewives and a step behind their husbands, until the 1950s and 1960s, and women would mostly vote for the same party as the husband. But some few reached high in politics and professional life, and there were women factory workers, secretaries, social workers and other, often lowly paid jobs.

I have dwelt on the backgrounds of the Swedish social democratic leaders, seeing it as important to the policies and values they stood for. My story last week about two ordinary Swedes, Oscar and Greta (with reference to the Swedish Broadcasting SVT documentary from 2017)gives further understanding of how it was possible to change Swedenfrom a poor, class divided and stagnant society to an affluent, sharing and innovative society. Today, I would like to emphasize further that the cultures and values that were key in the Social Democratic Party, and the groups who sympathized with it, were all those of ordinary people. If the leaders had come from different backgrounds, that would have been more difficult, and the policies might well have been less all-inclusive. Yet, sometimes, there were people on the left who came from middle-class and upper-class backgrounds, but who supported the socialist and social democratic policies. In Sweden, the leader from the 1970s, Olof Palme, was from an upper middle class background, but it seems he represented ordinary people as well as those who were from the lower class backgrounds themselves; in many cases, he was further to the left than lower class party friends, and certainly further to the left than Tage Erlander, whose assistant he had been for many years. Elsewhere in Scandinavia and Europe, it was important that the Labour party leaders came from or were close to the lower classes and the majority of people they actually represented. In neighbouring Norway, the legendary leader and PM at the same time as Tage Erlander, had only 7 years of primary education and was a roads worker in the Oslo City Council when he entered politics for the Labour Party. It should be mentioned again that the training of officials within the party was as good as, maybe better, than any university degree and experience from a higher position in the private or government sectors.

When the socialist and social democratic parties were young in Scandinavia, a hundred years ago, also just fifty years ago, leaders from academic backgrounds were often looked at with some suspicion. It would often be preferred that the leaders came from working class milieus, indeed with experience from factory jobs and infrastructure projects. Local government and labour union leaders with concrete experience from fighting for better pay and work and living conditions for the workers and ordinary people were seen as ideal backgrounds for parliamentarians. Women were few in top politics that time, and those who did would usually need higher education, for example as teachers, doctors and lawyers, as a tool to climb high in politics.

As late as the 1970s, when Olof Palme became leader of the Social Democratic Party, some would question his upper middle class background and the fact that he never held an ordinary job before entering politics. A decade or so later, there was a central social democrat who was considered for leadership, but he had become a wealthy man in his own time, and that was seen as even less suitable than having been born into a wealthy family. In Norway, Jonas Gahr Støre, the current leader of the Labour Party is wealthy, with university degrees from Oslo and Paris (the latter seen as the most snobbish possible!), and his background is sometimes used against him by political opponents. He inherited wealth as his family was owner of a lucrative factory, making wood burning heaters; now, when people have turned to electricity for heating, the factory has been sold and the fortune turned into shares in other companies, some registered on the stock exchange. (To have been owner of Jøtul, the top heater factory in the cold land of Norway, must have been as lucrative as owning a gas cylinder factory in Pakistan!)

Voters and members of the Labour Party may at times feel that Størecomes from the ‘wrong background’, lacking the experience that would make him understand ordinary people’s lives and problems, and at every election he is faced with questions about his personal economy. And then,on the other hand, I remember when Støre visited Pakistan some fifteen years ago, at a time when he was Minister of Foreign Affairs, and spoken about as future party leader, a Norwegian friend who also worked for the UN here, the same as I did, was impressed by Støre. She thought his wealth would make him more independent, and he she liked the idea that he wouldn’t need to earn an income in his life, if he chose not to work. He could simply live from his capital income. Now then, Støre has held jobs and received salaries all his life, like ordinary people, those he represent in politics; but he also has that money and the stocks.

I assume the reader knows better the situation in Pakistan than I do. Let me still mention that most leaders here come from wealthy backgrounds, and if not, they soon become wealthy while in politics, having the contacts and opportunities. It is not the case for all, and Prime Minister Imran Khan may be an example of a leader from modest beginnings, having succeeded in another field first, notably sports, and then stubbornly and persistently also succeeding in politics. In Pakistan, it should also be mentioned that the military gives ordinary people, well, men, a chance to rise and climb irrespective of family backgrounds.

Today, everywhere in the world, education is important for social mobility, and we cannot quite imagine a top politician without a university degree – unlike a politician on the left in Scandinavia fifty or a hundred years ago. In Pakistan, it is even a requirement for parliamentarians to hold a university degree; I am not sure it is right to have made that a formal requirement. Yet, we also know that education is important, not only contacts and wealth – and training in the political parties, labour unions and on the job. Interestingly, the current Swedish PM, Stefan Löfven, did not complete his university degree and has factory work experience, and indeed labour union background, locally, nationally and internationally. Besides, he comes from a remote, ruraltown, and he grew up in a foster family.

Finally today, let me say that the backgrounds that we come from and the values we grow up with, are important later in life, whether we remain just ordinary people, poor or better off, or if we become leaders in politics, civil service or the private sector. In this article, I have drawn attention to the importance of having politicians that come from modest backgrounds simply because they then can more directly understand the problems of ordinary people – and I have often said in my articles earlier that I believe that the key role of a politician is indeed to work for people in the lower classes. The ‘rich and famous’, the well educated and well-to-do, can fend better for themselves. The politicians must fend for the masses. Those at the top will usually not give away their privileges, wealth, land ownership, stocks, and so on; it is from below that change can come, yes, with leaders who see that egalitarian societies, like the Scandinavians, are better for all – in the long run also for the upper classes.

I believe Pakistan is (finally) on the right track, but it will take a while for the ship to change course, and many things need to take place, indeed in the education, social and work sectors. And in Scandinavia, they must be careful so they don’t turn the ship to the right, which would be wrong, giving up many of the hard won rights of ordinary people. In our tome change must include better the new and diverse lower classes, immigrants, refugees, jobless and people who did not succeed in the competitive education system.

It is a democratic right for every person to have equal opportunities, to participate and contribute to his or her abilities, and be able to live a good and secure life. The values from home, the moral and ethical standards, religious traditions, political persuasion, scientific reasoning, change optimism, and so on, form the basis and guidance for us all.Indeed, our backgrounds count, also in politics. The Swedish leaders, and indeed the couple Oscar and Greta teach us all a lot; there are thousands and millions of such couples in Pakistan, too, and it is they who build the land, with good politicians.