I have a running joke with colleagues and students about the Joanna Lumley society. This draws on a sketch from the Mitchell and Webb show, where various young men engaged in socially destructive but highly lucractive activity are reduced to ashes by a roomful of grey-haired ladies. How excellent, we thought, if derivatives traders had to seek licences from a committee of such women, chaired by Dame Joanna herself.
I had been trying to imagine what a society run along these principles might be like, and I am beginning to think I may have found it in Finland. If the USA is the testosterone-fuelled adolescent of nations, then Finland is surely the babushka: wise, caring and quietly in control. I was surprised by Finland: it is not the laid-back happy-go-lucky society I had imagined a Scandinavian society to be. Saunas are places of meditation and business, not of sensuality and titillation.
Being in a country where everything happens as planned, where trains and buses run to the minute and where good design is second nature is immensely reassuring. I had reached the point after a few days where, when I felt the need for something, whether a left-luggage locker or a napkin, I looked about to see where some foresighted Finn had placed it. And mostly I was not disappointed.
What is most skilful about the way the Finns approach the 21st century is there ability to portray themselves as successful players in the globalised corporate economy, when really they have retained much of what was good about a socialist approach to life. But this is not an oppressive state socialism, rather one informed by self-reliant and mutual values.
Finland has a greater density of co-operatives than any other economy: the number of members far outstrips the population of the country. Its dominant corporation, the S-Group, is itself a co-operative. So I was able to stay in co-operative hotels, shop in the S-market shops and the bus we travelled in refuelled at ABC!, the S-group's national network of filling stations. In total the S-Group is a €10.5bn business with interests in farming, retail, and tourism, as well as department stores.
Women play a powerful role in Finnish political life, with nearly 50% of the members of parliament being female. Data from the Fawcett Society indicates that, in terms of a ranking of the percentage of women in national legislatures, the four Scandinavian countries are all in the top five, together with Rwanda. Since 2000, Finland has also had a female President, Tarja Halonen. The influence of women is obvious in small ways, such as the children's rooms on trains and the special wall seats for babies in women's showers.
I would not like to paint Finland as a utopia, however. It seemed to me that the public imposition of social awareness had squeezed out more human neighbourly responses. For example, Finns have a joke that they emerge from their flats in the spring and greet their neighbours with 'Oh, I'm glad to see you have made it through the winter'. When everything works so well, there is no space for the shared whinge or the mutual self-help that we Brits rely on. There is also a sense of heavy social control which, while reassuring, might be stifling if a part of one's everyday experience.
Finland also has problems in its political system, with a massive vote - out of nowhere - for a nationalist party in this spring's elections, as has happened in the other Nordic democracies. The 'True Finns', who rode to success on the back of opposition to the Eurozone bailouts to become the largest opposition party in the parliament, are a frightening hint of the vulnerability of a democracy, not matter how strong, in terms of economic crisis.