These days, naming a politician you really admire is harder than it should be, so I’d like to talk about Count Axel Oxenstierna. We’re all used to the Swedes being cool and progressive, but most of us don’t realise they were already ahead of the game 400 years ago. Oxenstierna was the grandaddy of Scandi-cool.
In an era when most men achieved greatness through war, Count Axel made his name by ending one, negotiating a peace with Denmark. Now, you might be thinking ‘Sweden and Denmark isn’t exactly a clash of the Titans - ending that war is not going to make you one of history’s all-time greats.’ If you’re thinking that, I see your point, but you’ve got to get your head around 17th century geopolitics to understand how big a deal Oxenstierna was. In early 17th century Europe, the modern-day minnows of Sweden and Denmark were heavy hitters. Sweden was a superpower. Under the warrior-king Gustavus Adolphus, its elite armies bullied Russia and carved a path through Germany.
Catholicism vs Protestantism was the great ideological struggle of the era, a bitter, bloodier version of the C20th clash between communism & capitalism. Gustavus Adolphus was Kennedy or Khruschev, depending on your perspective. I don’t want to labour the analogy, because analogies always wear out sooner or later, but you could think of Oxenstierna as Henry Kissinger without the war crimes, or at least not quite so many war crimes (He did also start at least one war, but y’know that’s positively starchild hippy levels of violence by C17th standards)
So what makes this guy better than today’s politicians? Two things.
First, he actually did stuff. Unlike so many politicians who consider it their business to spout ideology and rile people, Count Axel got his hands dirty governing. He raised money, organised armies, came up with laws. He built the system of government Sweden still uses today. He was always looking ahead for problems and squashing them before they could get serious. Global warming would be a quirky memory from the ‘80s if we had this guy in charge.
Second – He admitted when he was wrong and changed his mind. He regarded anyone incapable of doing this as unfit for office. This pragmatism made him revered as the wisest man in Europe. Cardinal Richelieu (The bad guy from the Three Musketeers and possibly the most powerful man in the world at this time) often turned to Oxenstierna for advice. Can you imagine anyone you’ve ever voted for doing that?
But we shouldn’t be misty eyed, longing for the days when we were ruled by intellectual titans. In a letter to his son, Oxenstierna wrote the words that have become his most famous legacy.
"Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?"
Idiots in politics are nothing new. The only thing that changes is how we deal with them.