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Finntopia: Lessons From The World’s Happiest Country

The league tables that caused plenty of consternation amongst the Western political classes show the Nordic countries constantly top in education, media freedom, lack of corruption, happiness and quality of life.

So how did they get there? How do they stay there and why can’t we emulate their success?

Host, Ross Ashcroft, met up with Author and Professor of Geography, Danny Dorling, to discuss.

The success of the Nordic’s

In the field of economic commentary and analysis, the international media invariably focus their attention on the world’s major players on the basis of metrics such as high global trade and GDP growth levels. But these ‘successes’ are often accompanied by rising inequality and public discontent. Rarely does social progress come into their reckoning. This is where the Nordic countries come into their own.

In the book, Finntopia: What We Can Learn From the World’s Happiest Country, Danny Dorling and Annika Koljonen, chronicle Finland, a particularly successful Nordic country on the fringes of Europe. By putting the interests of people at its heart, the country challenges our perceptions of what a successful society should be.

Dorling notes that Finland is among the highest in over 110 social ranked nations based on metrics such as equality, education, air quality and happiness. The country also has the lowest infant mortality rate in the history of the species and the best work-life balance for everybody from every social group.

While researching for the book, the Geographer was shocked to learn how terribly divided Finland was as a society in 1918 and therefore how much progress had been made in the country since then.

Dorling explains:

“Even the things we thought they were doing badly on, like suicide rates, have actually improved dramatically. The other thing I learnt was the political decades of struggle from the 1940s to the 1990s when Finland could have gone the way of an average European country.”


One of the biggest misconceptions about Finland that irks Dorling, is the notion that the country is racially homogeneous despite the fact that it has had very high rates of immigration to offset historically low rates of fertility.

What tends to happen, says Dorling, is that the right-wing in Westminster don’t want to talk about the Nordic’s in general, because their levels of equality reflects badly on England.

“There are two countries you can’t mention in the Department of Education in London. One is Finland. The other is Scotland. This is because they do dramatically better for education. You don’t keep up a position of high inequality and inefficiency and do so as badly as England does by looking at other places and learning from them”, says Dorling.

The reason England fails to learn from the more enlightened education policies of others, is because its own draconian policies stem from a disciplinarian Victorian mentality.

The Geographer says that although the other big four European countries – Spain, Italy, France and Germany – are all more equal than the UK, what’s particularly interesting is that Finland has done even better, having maintained a good level of equality for an entire generation.

The country also does better than its Nordic neighbours, but crucially, it took a long time for the country to achieve that. Historically, no country in the last two centuries, short of nuclear disasters and imperialist wars, has been able to transform deep social and economic problems into sudden equality. Revolutions haven’t done it because, ultimately, those who start them are replaced at the end by someone else who entrenches the monopoly that was there before.

So how did Finland do it?

According to Dorling, it took two generations of activists, beginning at the end of WW2, to push hard to develop its social capital, such as its education system, which even as far back as 2010, was widely recognized as the best in the world. The realization early on, was that in order to build Finland successfully, it was necessary to focus efforts on investing in a long-term vision for the country.

Dorling says that where the Finns have beaten other Nordic countries is by focusing their efforts more on the poorest quarter. Both during, and after, the war, one of the first things they did for school children, says Dorling, was to introduce free school meals for everybody, a debate that is still happening in the UK. In Helsinki, they also did meals during the holidays. The fight is about not losing what you’ve gained and then arguing to improve all the time.

“It’s ironic”, says Dorling, “that the British want to be number one in the world, but over power, money and wealth. The countries that have actually become number one, two and three in the world have done it by wanting to be good and decent to other people.”

The Geographer adds, astutely:

“In a very unequal country like the UK, you don’t become unequal by accident. You have people who want it to be unequal.”

Rather than this kind of subjugation mentality premised on self-entitlement and ruling through fear as a model of achievement, Finland has taken a different, collaborative, approach.

Negatives outweighed by positives

Dorling notes that there have been a few downsides to the utopia including alcoholism, loneliness and the prevalence of guns used for hunting.

But the academic says that these relatively few minor negatives are hugely outweighed by the focus the country has had on creating an equitable society.

The approach to social policy undertaken by successive UK governments, on the other hand, couldn’t be more stark. Dorling says, for example, that in the 1980s, if academic departments in the UK had access to government research money, their faculties were not allowed to discuss poverty or inequality.

What has since been revealed, adds Dorling, have been shocking levels of inequality in the UK. The political establishment put obfuscating barriers in place to prevent conscientious academics from revealing the full extent of the inequalities. It is clear that the reason they did this was because they never had any intention of addressing the issues that give rise to them in the first place.

Not completely a one-way street

Dorling acknowledges that Finland’s success is not a totally one-way street and that there are certain aspects around cultural inclusiveness and diversity where they could learn from the UK. But mainly, the latter has far much more to gain by learning from the former’s education, housing, homelessness and social security policies than Finland has to gain from the UK.

This is not to say it’s always been the case. Dorling notes, for instance, that during the 1960s people from Scandinavian and Nordic countries came to the UK to study what were then its successful progressive social policies.

“That’s partly why Scandinavia and the Nordic countries are so good, because they came and they learnt from the best of equality in places like Britain in the past”, says Dorling.

For Britain’s part, rather than opting to learn from the positive outcomes in Finland decades later, they instead decided to look to the inequitable United States model.

As the UK in 2021 continues to turn its back on the progressive policies of its European counterparts closer to home, what remains is a rather bleak, but realistic, picture of an early 21st century Britain that appears to have lost its way in the world.

Having said that, Dorling remains optimistic that the UK will not be able to cut itself off forever. “It will not be able to keep the majority of the population down and living on so little on the grounds that they are supposedly so inferior while lying to them and telling them, Oh, don’t worry, tomorrow will be better”, says Dorling.

With Finntopia, Dorling and Koljanen have created a handbook for how to get out of this mess.

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