It used to be Sweden. People loved Sweden. Here was a land of superb public services and big-hearted welfare. Here was a culture without Anglo-American neuroses about sex. Name a statistic — female labour force participation — and Sweden scored well. Abroad, it wasn’t warlike. It dealt in things like diplomacy and soft power instead, which achieved all sorts of results for the global commons. Such as? Look, don’t be awkward.
Then Sweden lost its halo. Foreign progressives learnt that its public services are open to such heresies as private providers and consumer choice. The Tories (booo) studied Göran Persson’s time as finance minister and head of government as a model for spending cuts in the UK. Bad Sweden. Apostate Sweden.
And so it became Germany. People loved Germany. Here was an economy that worked for those of a technical and not just academic bent. Here was a fair spread of wealth across the regions. And such serene politics: industrialist spoke unto minister who spoke unto union boss. With less historic practice than Britain or France, the country took in lots of non-white migrants.
Then Germany lost its halo. It shilly-shallied over Ukraine. Its strategic judgments — Russian gas as an input, China as a market — soured. The western world’s secular beatification of Angela Merkel turned out to be rash. In 2020, a book came out called Why the Germans Do It Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country. Oh, mate.
And so the moral crown has passed to . . . where? There is, for the first time in my politically conscious life, a vacancy for the role of paragon nation. In dinner parties from Los Feliz to Georgetown to Hackney, people are bereft. Which country are we to toast in an impassioned and half-informed way? Which country are we to compare invidiously with our own?
As far as I can make out, the criteria for paragon nation are as follows. It can’t have nuclear weapons or a permanent seat on the Security Council. (A paragon must embody liberal democracy. To get its hands dirty defending it is below-stairs.) It can’t have had lots of extra-European colonies. (You can’t praise a nation and cancel it all at once.) It can’t be restrictive on immigration. (Otherwise Japan would be in with a shout.)
Which leaves us with, what? Australia? It seems to balance the market and the state in a sensible way. Though liberal Brits sometimes suspect it of unreconstructed attitudes on race, I feel more invisible there than in most of continental Europe. Its politicians are rancorous but, in the end, conscientious. Years ago, during a round of meetings with several, I heard them fret about a debt-to-GDP ratio that most western countries would have to abolish old people, Logan’s Run-style, to get down to.
But no. The paragon can’t be English-speaking. Too familiar. There is no snob value in hailing a nation unless it confers on one a veneer of worldliness and urbanity. On that score, New Zealand, Canada and other Anglophones are also out.
Where else, then? Denmark? Its misgivings about immigration have smudged some of the liberal lustre it once had. Switzerland? Neutrality, that elegant word for shirking, carries more geopolitical stigma now. Singapore? Freedom House still has it down as “partly free”. Norway? The resource advantage is too great. Here, then, is my final offer. Uruguay. It has a large middle class, a welfare state that goes back a long time and the moral benefit of the doubt that seems to be the due of small nations in the vicinity of big ones. A paragon from the Global South — as no one I know who lives there calls it — would be very 21st century, very au courant.
But, despite gifting European football elite striker after elite striker, Uruguay struggles for profile. Montevideo is a long way from the opinion-shaping classes of the upper Atlantic. (Informants on the ground tell me that it doesn’t have a Kooples.) You have to be a politics hipster, a cover-to-cover Economist reader, to follow Uruguay. A true paragon nation captures the midwit, get-the-news-from-Trevor-Noah demographic.
I am defeated. The fallen angels of northern Europe are proving hard to replace. Perhaps the world empire that is the FT readership has a better answer. That, or Sweden comes back into fashion.
Find out about our latest stories first — follow @ftweekend on Twitter