Stockholm — Bengt Lindqvist is leading the difficult fight to maintain, and even extend, Sweden's social benefits in the anti-welfare state era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Mr. Lindqvist's commitment is heightened because he is blind.
``Obviously my own disability has influenced my attitude on the subject of justice,'' the 51-year-old minister in charge of health and social affairs said in an interview. ``We have a tradition of taking care of all our citizens, and I see no reason to take a step back.''
His message is effective.
Until his appointment in 1985, his Social Democratic Party felt defensive about its welfare-state policies. While no one doubted their generosity, the Social Democrats appeared too generous, too paternalistic.
Polls showed many Swedes wanted a less all-pervasive and more sensitive government, and Lindqvist helped the Social Democrats appear more sensitive.
``He was an important symbol,'' argues Olof Dahlberg, a journalist at the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter. ``His mere presence gave the handicapped and the disadvantaged a big boost, and his personality helped calm the welfare debate.''
While his former boss, slain Social Democratic prime minister Olof Palme, was viewed by some as harsh and divisive, Lindqvist is seen by most observers as calm and reassuring, with a warm, attractive personality.
``Lindqvist's appointment was a brilliant move by Palme,'' says Mats Svegfors, an editor at Svenska Dagbladet, another Stockholm daily. ``Unlike the past generation of Social Democratic leaders, he is flexible and gives a caring image.''
Lindqvist demonstrated all these qualities during the Monitor interview. In eloquent English, he avoided outspoken ideological statements, arguing for the welfare state out of a sense of compassion and fairness.
Social programs for the handicapped helped him realize his full potential, he said, and he wanted other handicaped Swedes to have the same opportunity.
To achieve these goals, he said, high taxes and high government spending are necessary. But he does not fear a popular tax revolt or conservative revolution in Sweden. He said Swedes share a common desire to help each other.
``People here are willing to pay high taxes because everyone benefits from the system,'' Lindqvist concluded. ``We have developed a spirit of cooperation in this country that creates an atmosphere where we try to solve things together.''