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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 October 2005, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
Mark Mardell 20/10/05: Finns' family values
Mark Mardell
The BBC's Europe Editor, Mark Mardell, continues his weekly diary on events in the European Union.

It will be posted on the BBC News website every Thursday.

This week: enjoying the last of the sun in Finland, where people have strong feelings about their social responsibilities; some lost property; and a challenge to "Old Europe".


It is one of the last bright, sunny, crisp autumn days in Finland before the snows arrive.

The children at the school we are filming at are almost too good to be true, blonde hair in neat plaits, full of energy but not too boisterous, amazingly well-behaved. Sometimes it seems the whole of Finland is like that - just too goody-goody to be believable.

Oh, there are problems: relatively high unemployment, depopulation in the barren North and, as everywhere else, they've lost jobs to India and China.

But they have so far pulled off the trick that seems to have failed in France and Germany and combined high social protection with a really buzzy economy.


In fact, I expect to see Messrs Brown and Blair pop up heavily disguised in blond wigs and snow shoes.

The mantra of these politicians is spoken quite naturally by every citizen here. They will tell you how it is important for the state to "invest" in children and how the high skills, hi-tech road is the only one to follow, and unfortunately that means high taxes.

I've lost count of the number of pamphlets I've read by New Labour politicians trying to recapture some lost spirit of Owenite socialism when people cared for each other and realised they had "rights as well as responsibilities".

Such stuff is again on the lips of ordinary Finns who do claim to see each other as part of a big family who have a duty to look after each other and give something back.


Just how different Finland is comes to me after interviewing the prime minister in his rather lovely offices in a main square overlooked by a beautiful, white domed Lutheran cathedral.

I have a few "pieces to camera" to do, so put my bag containing files, personal organiser, keys and camera down by the steps into the PM's office. Foolishly I leave it there.

When I rush back in a panic three-quarters of an hour later, it's still there. Not only un-nicked but there's no cordon thrown around it, no police about to blow it up.

Last time I left my bag in Downing Street it not surprisingly caused a panic even though it had been through the full security system. Now that's what I call a different social model.


I'm writing this in Estonia, where I have just arrived after a rather pleasant high-speed ferry journey.

Just as the Scandinavian countries have long fascinated politicians of the left as somewhere their economic and social dreams have come true, so this country is exciting the right.

They were the first country in the European Union to go for a flat tax - no different rates of income tax. And they're cutting the tax rate the whole time.

The country is clearly booming - new buildings and cranes line the docks - and the growth rate is phenomenal by European comparisons.

It's well beyond the Anglo-Saxon model. Chancellor Gordon Brown rejects the idea out of hand, but the Conservative's shadow chancellor, George Osbourne, is interested.

It's the sort of model that scares the pants off "Old Europe". Does it work? What are the consequences? I hope to have some thoughts on that next week.

Please use the form below to send in your comments on issues raised in the diary:

I retired (with my Finnish born wife)to Finland some 18 months ago, after spending my entire life in UK, didn't fancy the sunny Costa's with all the "expatronising" types therin and actually hankered after the peace and quiet of the countryside. Well we found it and at a price that would make your local estate agent go and look for a real job. Sure taxes are high,yes there's a problem with alcohol and it does get very very cold in winter but apart from the long winter the UK looses hands down when it comes to quality of life,the UK drunk is aggresive, peer pressure is unrelenting and the government has little idea of what's happening at grass roots level whereas here, the honesty in politics generally is reflected in everyday life, along with the finnish right to say what you mean without offending (which gives rise to the common complaint over immigration, i.e. racist comments). Strange that, as the worst rascist comments I've ever heard were all out of the corner of the mouth and spoken in the UK. Finns might appear reserved but they have something valuable and they should be wary of losing there heritage , just look at the the mess the UK's got herself into.
Albert M. , Nr. Salo, Finland

I'm a Finn, yet prefer living in the UK. Finland may, in a way, be more 'secure' than UK (especially now), but security is not much of a joy if you're bored to death... Finland is a very homogenous, small country where nothing ever happens, where being boring & ordinary is a virtue and where everyone is expected to behave and think in the same way, almost an 'unwritten law'... Compared to that, UK is multicultural, interesting, ever-changing paradise. And as some others have said, if Finland is such a good place, why the high suicide rates and alcoholism..?
Marika, London

I am a Finn living in London. It is always interesting to read foreigners' opinion about my home country. All the comments were fair and true. After living in London for 5 years I have decided I'd rather live in Finland despite high tax rates, people's tendency to depression, lack of superficial politeness etc. At least I can enjoy the clean nature, enjoy our every-man's-right to pick up berries and mushrooms from the forrest, swim in clear water lakes, leave my shopping on the car seats without somebody smashing the window in and nick it (believe me, I am laughed at when I start to hide shopping under seats), use a brilliant public transport in Helsinki where bus and train timetables show the exact time when they will arrive (e.g. 13.46) and very rarely there is delays, trust that services e.g. from plumbers or car carages are honest and they're not trying to rip you off.. The list would go on and on. Most of all I would be able to live very simple, stress free, quiet, fear! less life which I have grown to respect and appreciate after London's hectic life.
Tia, London

I am an Estonian national, who has lived in the UK for many years. The grass is always greener on the other side. We should be lucky with what we have. But things are never perfect, so we shouldn't be cocky about it. Sim, I absolutely agree with you on the confusion - why are Brits so afriad of adopting better systems? With so many UK citizens grumbling about the state of affairs, it's about time something fresh came in.
Taavi Tillmann, Glasgow, UK

What everyone seems to be missing is that part of what makes this social system possible in Finland is based upon things that cannot be exported. THe values are one thing, but lets think about how Finland was able to build a consensus to accomplish those things. In a nation with a small, fairly homogenous population this will be easier. Consider the UK with nearly 60 million, the US with nearly 300 million and consider how very diverse and heterogenous they are. Before we knock ourselves down, lets think about what made that possible. I would defy anyone to build such a strong consensus here.
Jessie, Toronto

I've lived in Finland for almost five years. A reader commented that Finland has a high rate of homicide and high alcoholism. Each are connected to the other. Murder usually happens here between two drunken men and they often know each other. What does not seem to be here are high levels of random crime (murder, rape, theft, robbery, battery) that we read about in the UK or the USA. So the vast majority of people feel quite safe. I do appreciate the services here that is afforded by high taxes, but Finland could easily expand its economy by loosening the tax noose on its citizens. Lost tax revenues would be offset by increased commerce. Too many Finns drive unsafe old vehicles because few can afford new cars. Finns could enjoy more out of life if the VAT was lower than the current 22%. Finnish inheritance taxes are immorally high. Think about it, high income taxes combined with a 22% VAT. But its hard for Finnish politicians to understand how demanding less can actually produce more by expanding the economy. Eventually they will get the message. Or maybe not!
Steve Crawford, Jyväskylä, Finland

The Finns benefit from an uncomplicated culture. They know what it feels like to be up against the odds. They cherish in having "sisu". I have visited Finland and been to Nordic ski races at their clubs in Canada. As northern folk, the Finns appreciate "being exposed to the elements". Toughness has a way of focusing a person but can also be too much for some to bear when it is always expected.
Michael, Toronto, Canada

"The children at the school we are filming at are almost too good to be true, blonde hair in neat plaits,..." Can't help wondering; would it be equally good with afro hair in neat plaits?
Patrick , Stockholm, Sweden

The story of Estonia is an interesting one. I think that we must realize that the flat tax system is by far the most fair system available. Because many loopholes are non existant in such a system the 'wealthy' usually end up paying more rather than less. Some European countries must learn that too much government is not good. The more government you have in a country the worse the situation usually tends to be, just look back at communist times in eastern Europe. There was a whole lot of government but not any dynamism. Government (whether local, regional or national) should only be around to handle a few things anyway. Diplomacy, national security, setting minimum educational standards, providing for those who cannot provide for themselves (which is different from those who don't want to). Too often government tendency is to get bigger and bigger. Why? Because every politician has friends that need to be appointed to a job, and if none exist, they shall be created.
Marcel de Vries, The Hague, the Netherlands

Well, as a Finn I must say that the high level of education or technology really doesn't mean that the people are "well-being". It seems to me that the potentiality of suicide comes with the genes. Some are brave enough to actualize this potentia, but the rest of us just have to try to keep struggling against the urge... It might be the winter, since you really can't smile then. Your teeth would probably crack IF you manage to move the muscles in your frozen face. But I love the winter. And the pressure from those Finns, who want the rest of us to be European (as the French), learn that 'small-talk' (which I don't understand at all) and start drinking wine daily really doesn't help. It's just ludicrous. I sometimes feel envious of the Brits. Your humour is great, you really do produce the best TV-drama in the world and your whole society seems quite unreal (not in the same scale as the US, of course) from here up north. Oh god, how I wish I had been born British...
Juha, Kuopio, Finland

I am Finnish but have been living in the UK for five years. It is true that Finland has a proportionately high rate of violent crime and widespread unemployment. However, in a lot of ways Finland has managed extremely well in providing not just a high standard of living for its people but also a good quality of life. It is something that we Finns almost take for granted. Hi-tech services, efficiency and honesty are just some of the most visible advantages and in comparison, the UK (I must admit) has often seemed quite backward to me. The inequalities in the education system and the deep socio-economic class divisions strike me as particularly problematic. Nevertheless the UK has a lot of things going for it (e.g. a flexible job market) and the two countries could definitely learn from each other.
Tove, Cambridge

Racism is not rampant and the services are fine. Sure we had some years ago few problems with a handful of skinheads in a couple of rural towns but even that has been sorted. Most of the suicides and murders are related to alcohol abuse. We drink very little per capita, but all the drinking is done during weekends or long public holidays. I have lived as a student and an unemployed person and now as an employed person and thank the government for all the support during my difficult times.
Timo A, Helsinki, Finland

I am a Finn who lives in the UK and will be returning home in a couple of years. I agree with the report, I've lost several mobile phones in the past in Finland through my own stupidity, leaving them on park benches or on the Helsinki Metro and they have always been returned to me! Whilst it is true that the suicide rate is high in Finland, that has more to do with the long dark winter days than anything else. Although Britain is a great country, there is something for the UK to learn about the importance of equality in society and its effects on everything else from Finland. I must also completely disagree with Adam Boivin about the quality of services in Finland. Trains and buses run exactly according to schedule in Finland, and everything is very orderly. Perhaps if Adam lived out in a very rural environment, then - just as in any country, the level of services would not be as high as in the cities. I personally at least have never, not even once, encountered any problems in Finland.
Ilari Welling, Reading, UK

I'm an A level Politics and government student and part of the course is the study of the Scandinavian countries, such is the high levels of social capital that exist there. In nearly all of the worlds industrialised nations turnout is declining at elections and voters are becoming more isolated and rational, in short less likely to get involved within their community or strive towards greater goals for collective society. The old social institutions such as the Salvation Army haven't been replaced by our generation of suburbia dwellers. Countries like Finland are to be admired though. Higher levels of trust between citizens will inevitably lead to higher levels of participation and healthy democracy.
Tom, cardiff

3 years ago i did a medical elective in Finland. At present i am training to become a GP. My experince of Finland is a country where everything works, people are hardworking and honest. I lived there for 2 months and nobody was ever rude to me, no one tried to lie or discriminate in anyway. Their health care indices with regards maternal and child health mortality/morbidity makes UK look like a 3rd world country. They have the least corrupt government in the world. I know it is impossible for Uk to achieve the above because we still hold individual interests higher than that of community. Greed and capitalism and a government bent on staying power more than upholding principles of equality and overall national interests will continue to hold us back.
Akin Osakuade, Dunfermline Fife

Finland is a safe place with good education and healthcare system, but the weather is depressing and racism thrives like nowhere else I have seen. It is good place if you don't like sun and are light-skinned (or not obviously foreigner). As a Finnish citizen, could I also mention (besides the topic) that some of us do not like Finland being referred to as included in "Scandinavia" (which literally means the Scandinavian peninsula; Norway & Sweden) as it implies to the era when we where under Swedish rule. Geographically we are in Fennoscandia. This is ofcourse just my private opinion ;)
Effa, London

Yes Scandinavia does have it's advantages but don't forget that the weather is dreadful - 6 months of winter and a few weeks of a decent summer. This makes a big difference to your quality of life and something surveys fail to take into account.
Beryl , Oslo, Norway

Good in many ways but oh, so boring ! If trees, vodka, snow or mosquitos don't float your boat you're out of luck.
Ian, UK

I'm sure all the good points are true but bear in mind those countries are not riddled with the class system the UK has nor did they have to go through 20 years of Thatcher policies. The first step for the UK to even dream of having the type of society those countries have was to stop the economy going boom or bust. Now it ebbs and flows which is far more secure - not perfect but better. It remains to be seen what class of politician emerges with the brains to deal with the other issues. I won't hold my breath as in the UK the bottom line is the public still do not grasp that to have great public services you need to pay for them and to have rights you must also have responsibilities.
Des FitzGerald, London UK

Many of the comments here paint an idealistic picture of Scandinavia. I'm a Swede, but I live in London, because it is so hard to find a job, even with a degree. The social model is great, but increasingly not working properly, especially with Globalisation increasingly making it's presence felt. Some other negatives with these countries are the climate, the reserved nature of the inhabitants, and the lack of individualism.
Dan S, London

Finland is a decent country to live. Inspite of all the talk about free market, it is anything but a free market. There are not many options when you have to buy some service(this could be attributed to the tiny market size). A good place to have a nice work balance but not the best place for ambitious free flying people. One of the reasons for high unemployment is archaic labour laws. People here believe in a cradle to grave Nanny state, penalizing individual entreprenuership.
Sudhir, Tampere, Foreigner in Finland

I was born and raised in Iran and at the age of eight we fled Iran to end up in Finland. Two years ago I got married and moved to Pittsburgh. I have been exposed to many cultures and societies and I have to admit Scandinavia has won my heart. I miss the culture and the people. I miss what I call the honest, quiet and uncomplicated life. To everyone who has an opportunity to live or even visit Scandinavia I say go for it and take it all in.
Negar Altieri, Pittsburgh, USA

Why do we always have to compare the uncomparable? Finland has a small population and the culture there is very different from a large country as the UK. Finnish people are very proud of their country and are not very critical of themselves. The same applies here in Ireland, were we boast that 86% of workers are happy with their job. Is this really true or is it is a purely subjective point of view?
Fiona Harris, Dublin, Ireland

Go on, Mark, and continue to explore the richness of Europe. It may all be a bit late for a senior political correspondent and the views may be a bit too narrow here and there, but any effort to make the Brits understand that, in most respects, they are not the best in Europe is welcome. Having said that, we "continentals" will, of course, never match the Brits in common sense and the amazing ability to take things calmly.
Ronald Vopel, Brussels, Belgium

As an expat Brit living and working in Finland I can concur that the experience of Mr Mardell with his camera case is the norm, not an exception. Many ex-pats have similar stories. Wallets left on top of petrol pumps, credit cards left at check outs... Why? Education is the top priority demand of all Finns. In the 1980s and 1990s they wanted to have the best and they got it.

Now they want their kids to have even better. They are so self critical that it is almost a mania. The main debate in the media recently is again education: "We have got the kids well-educated in the 3 Rs, and they understand right and wrong, so they are honest, but, are we doing enough to teach them how to respect other races and religions? If so why are we not being more welcoming to Immigrants?"
Peter , Vantaa Finland

Why can't the authorities in the UK learn from the successes of other countries instead of trying to re-invent the wheel (and failing).
Richard Bagnall, Cambridge, UK

Comparatively, Scandinavia is doubtlessly a blissful place to live, nevertheless as we have it all, we want more, thus there is dissatisfaction as everywhere. It is relative. We all want to better off next year than we were this year and, as we rank high on the UN development index, others want what we have. Understandably, but we are not happier than anyone else, just stuffed full of well-being.
Vegard, Norway

I can't believe this phenomenon has only just been noticed. I've been all over Scandinavia. In fact, I was in Sweden 10 years ago and noticed they had Chip and Pin: a whole 10 years before we did! Everyone is friendly to each other, violence and gun crime is unheard of and frankly the grass is much greener than here. Scandinavia is a region with much better moral and social values and have a much higher standard of living. There seems to be a narrower class divide too, almost none at all in fact. They are not richer than us, so why are they having a better life? Because we in the UK need to take a long hard look in the mirror at the state of ourselves.
Austin Vaughan, Middlesbrough, England

Yes, but will all your thoughts be as patronising and condescending to "foreigners" as those above? Is it conceivable to you that another culture might just be better at organising themselves than the British? (And yes, I am British.) If so, isn't such a culture worth a little more consideration? Here's a good question: Instead of using puerile terms like "goody-goody", why don't you ask the obvious poser of how these people can get so much right while everyone in the UK with an ounce or more of power keeps screwing things up so badly?
Chris Wells, Warsaw, Poland

After reading the story of whether Finland is too good to be true I have to say that indeed Finland is too good to be true. I should know, I have lived there for 10 years. It is one thing to send your Europe Editor Mark Mardell for a short spell than having him actually living there as a student, unemployed person or pensioner. Maybe his Finnish diplomat friends forgot to tell him that Finland has one of the highest suicide rates and alcoholic rates in the developed world or that it has one of the highest homicide rates in the European Union.

Also the quality of services are very poor, racism is rampant, it is the most expensive country to live in with the euro, and the list could go on. Perhaps the only good thing about Finland is the amount of money they invest in R&D in science and technology.
Adam Boivin, London

I have lived here five years and cannot complain. There are of course things which people grumble about, but yes the safety aspect is mind-blowing. On the other hand the pessimism also comes with the climate and people need to fight to get paid properly in some sectors, notably higher education and hospitals. I shall be leaving, but I must thank Finland for what I have enjoyed and in the future I will have to remember to lock the doors.
Patrick Fox, Oulu, Finland

I lived in Finland, and it may seem like a very "goody-goody" place, but it also has a very high suicide rate (one of the largest in Europe) and a lot of Finns I knew there couldn't wait to leave in search of some excitement.
Tim Nice, London

Although born English, I have lived in various other countries for some years now. Why? Because things work better elsewhere. I have often wondered why Britain doesn't study examples of where systems are working better and then adopt that model. Why so arrogant? Frankly, England isn't functioning properly.

Honesty is one of the most valued virtues of Finns. The way my student guild sells beer at the parties has always amazed the exchange students. At each party the fridge is filled with beer and cider and next to it is an open box with cash in it. Usually worth of several hundred euros. When you buy a beer, you take a warm bottle and put it into the fridge and take a cold one out. Then you pay to the open box and count the change by yourself. There's no-one to watch you and it's up to your honesty to pay and not to take too much change (or all the money for that matter).
Jukka, Finland

As an American married to a Finn, I must say that Finland is a delightfully unique place. Its unique qualities allow it to function quite effectively as a society. Its small and homogeneous population make it easier to develop national consensus on issues. It is this consensus, coupled with lack of corruption, that has won the confidence of the tax base, and allows their high-tax model to thrive. I do not believe, however, that this model could be replicated in large, heterogeneous societies like the U.S. or U.K. Bureaucracies grow too large, societal interests are too varied, and government corruption is too widespread to win the confidence of the populace into paying tax rates similar to the Scandinavian nations. In Finland, my tax rate would be about twice as high as it is here in the States. However, in Finland I would recieve first-rate health care, my children would recieve a first-rate education (through medical school, if they so choose), and my family and I would benefit from a host of other services that I would have to pay for separately here in the States. Here in the U.S., my federal taxes go into a black hole, from which I don't derive any visible benefit. Thus, even though on paper my tax rate in the States is considerably lower, I don't think I am any better off, once the benefits derived from the higher taxes in Finland are taken into account. It essentially comes down to an issue of trust between the taxpayer and the government. In Finland, taxes are seen as an investment in the country's future. It stems from the belief that everyone is in the 'same boat', and to survive in the 21st century they have to work together. The tax system is the harness that allows them to move in the most efficient and effective direction. This is clearly not the case in the U.S., where the federal government is viewed with suspicion.
Blair Petersen, Wheaton, Illinois, USA

Having lived in Finland for the past year, visiting Estonia many times during my stay, I have to say that Mark has it mostly right but obviously could only focus on the surface during his stay. I'd make 2 other points about Finland and Estonia: i) taxes are high, yes (at an average UK professional salary taxes would be around 50%), but more importantly the tax system is incredibly progressive so incentives to work are just not there above certain salary levels - this has particularly hit the creaking healthcare system; ii) they say the two biggest Finnish exports are Nokia and Finns - only certain sectors in Finland are booming, so many professionals have decided to leave their homeland - Sweden is a favourite destination; and iii) Estonia has many social problems - it already has the highest HIV rates in Europe and has a huge problem with the Russian-speaking minority, who are not eligible to work unless they can speak Estonian - it is also very poor outside of the main cities of Tallinn and Tartu - from his comments it is clear that Mark obviously didn't step outside of Tallinn.
Patrick Crowley, Corpus Christi, TX, USA

Mr Mardell's enjoyment of Finland and his positive observations of it are so accurate. As an englishman with a family home in England and Finland for over 30 years I can vouch for much that Mardell's article described about the Finns and the Finnish way of life. I am astonished by Adam Boivin's (London) adverse comments; the fact that his was the only letter like that I guess is because there will always be one totally odd-ball character who find fault with everything. Whatever Mr Boivin's unfortunate experiences in Finland he certainly is an eccentric exception to the rule. Yes, there's unemployment in Finland (one of my Finnish nephews, a trained electrician, has struggled for 3 years to find any work at all); yes, there's creeping racism (the influx of Somalis and other islamic groups has not blended well with the free-spirited land of the sauna & lake), and yes, for certain household goods, entertainment places & transport it can be an expensive nation to live in, but, these are just incidentals of the total Finnish lifestyle package. I suspect Mr Boivin did not get sufficient invites to saunas, did not relax enough at the lakeside cottages, lost his way on the cross-country forest nature treks, found it hard to leave Helsinki (with more natural water-side than Venice) where the occasional elk and even reindeer still walks down the main rail-line, or, maybe he just could not accept the tranquility and security amid the technological pace-setters because he truly missed the dirt, grime and crime of London. Never mind, when Mr Boivin left Finl! and he left behind a space for a more gentle soul....hooray!

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