The High North

Edinburgh is not the Athens of the North but the Reykjavik of the South – capital of the archipelago of countries and people around the North Sea.

Scottish voters look set to vote on independence from the rest of the UK in a referendum in 2014. If Nationalist First Minister Alex Salmond has his way, a third option of “devo max” will be added to outright independence and the status quo allowing Scots to opt for full control of tax and economic policy while refraining from cutting all ties with the UK. It’s not yet clear if that third option will be put, or even allowed, as an alarmed UK government threatens to take over the whole referendum process. But since the SNP’s landslide victory in May 2011, the question is being taken seriously north of the border – how would an independent Scotland manage itself? What would be different about a uniquely Scottish taxation and welfare system?

Traditionally Scots have looked west to Quebec or Ireland or south to the quasi-independent territories of Cataluyna in Spain.

Maybe, at long last, it’s time to look east to the world’s most successful democracies which just happen to be our nearest neighbours – Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Yes and even north to basket-case Iceland, the final errant member of the Nordic family, which is busily restructuring its democracy and economy in the wake of near bankruptcy three years ago.

Could the much discussed and little defined “Nordic Model” serve as a new social and economic template – whether Scotland votes to become Europe’s newest independent state or remains Britain’s most highly devolved national region?

Thanks to her geographical, political and historical position within Northern Europe, Scotland has always had a dual identity. Since the Treaty of Union in 1707 Scotland’s formal position within the UK has defined it as remote, small, relatively infertile, leftward-leaning, northern and Celtic.

But arguably, Scotland could also be viewed as the most accessible, second largest, most socially conservative, fertile, southern part of the Nordic region.

In reality, the land of Picts and Celts once ruled by Norwegian Vikings is a bit of both.

Veteran English politician Peter Shore once observed that Scots-born Labour Party leader John Smith would struggle to win votes in the south-east because, “he was too Nordic to understand southern greed.” Throughout 17 years of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government – and the Major administration which followed – Scots voted Labour, against national trends. The Iron Lady’s belief in competition, de-regulation and sale of public utilities went down like a lead balloon in Scotland and resulted in the removal of every Conservative MP at the 1997 General Election.

But even though Tony Blair and New Labour won, Scots were determined not to be outmanoeuvred by conservative English voters ever again. The extra-parliamentary Constitutional Convention that prompted the 1999 Devolution referendum was positively Nordic in its breadth, earnest intent and inclusiveness – boycotted only by the Scottish Nationalist Party. Ironically, within a decade, they would become its main political beneficiary.

But devolution has been a disappointment for many – “not being English” is not a good enough raison d’etre for a new policy or an expensive new parliament.

Alex Salmond has been the first to grasp the thistle. He intends to craft a distinctive economic base by avoiding nuclear energy and generating (the equivalent of) all domestic electricity from renewable sources only by 2020. He wants to create a Renewables Fund for future investment. He believes Scotland’s unsurpassed wind, wave and tidal resources can be harnessed to supply the home market whilst oil and gas reserves can become valuable exports. The parallels with Norway could hardly be stronger.

During a 2009 speech in Edinburgh about the political consequences of climate change and the new north-east passage around Russia, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre appeared to reciprocate; “When I talk of the High North I include Scotland. There is a North Sea community based on past links and present interests and Scotland is in it. The High North is not about individual states but about a developing part of northern Europe. Ecosystems, migration flows, technological communities all make more sense when you are dealing with wind, wave and sun – they don’t observe national boundaries. It’s only with oil and gas that boundaries matter.”

And yet, boundaries do matter. In 2007, Alex Salmond made a speech memorable for his mention of the “Arc of Prosperity”.  Iceland, Ireland and Norway – he said – were three examples of small, dynamic, northern nations whose prosperity Scots could hope to share if they controlled all the policy levers that come with independence.

Within a year Iceland and Ireland had gone belly-up, the Arc of Prosperity was dubbed the Arc of Insolvency by critics and Scotland’s banks were saved from Icelandic-style meltdown only by the intervention of Big Brother Britain. Scotland’s self-confidence was badly shaken. Months later, Alex Salmond’s hopes of “endorsement”  by the resurgent Norwegians were also shattered when Jonas Gahr Støre reportedly urged the Scottish First Minister not to use comparisons with Norway to justify the cause of Scottish independence.

Diplomatic relations have since resumed. And for Scottish policymakers comparisons with small, self-governing, social-democratic northern nations are quite simply there to be made.

Could Scots adopt Norwegian-style outdoors kindergartens to combat poor health outcomes and indoor, sedentary, inactive lifestyles? How could Scotland adopt Swedish-style insulation, recycling and district-heating to cut heating bills and transform housing standards?  Would Scotland benefit from rubbing shoulders with like-sized nations in the Nordic Council?

And inspiration is a two-way street. Swedish educationalists are watching keenly as Scotland launches the Curriculum for Excellence where the separate disciplines of history, geography and science are largely replaced with study of single, compelling issues — like the Cold War or Air — across all subject divides.

Already the first policy directly lifted from a Nordic neighbour is rumbling its way through Holyrood. I was a member of the Scottish Government’s Prison’s Commission which adopted many aspects of the Finnish community payback model after an inspiring fact-finding trip to Helsinki.

In policy – and maybe in politics – Scotland clearly has as much to learn from its left-leaning, five-million-strong Nordic cousins as from our right-leaning, fifty million strong English neighbour.

Two years ago, after making a BBC documentary on Norway’s Outdoor Kindergartens, I set up a think tank called Nordic Horizons with fellow Nordophile Dan Wynn.

We’ve held 7 well attended meetings in the Scottish Parliament for policy-makers and the public on subjects as varied as municipal government, women’s quotas, oil, gas and the High North, kindergarten and the applicability of the Nordic Model(s) to Scotland. Slightly more Labour than SNP MSPs have attended, including former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander and Labour Party Whip John Park. We’ve had financial backing from the Norwegian and Swedish Embassies to bring relevant speakers to kick start each meeting – the bulk of each meeting is spent in a highly interactive “round table” discussion. A special lunchtime meeting for interested civil servants was also successful.

So what characterises the Nordic Model?

High income taxes to equalise opportunity (and eliminate class differentials) and lower taxes on business. “Flat” organisational structures with relatively little hierarchy. Social contracts that involve workers and unions in everyday business decisions. Strong connections with nature, the outdoors and relatively cheap land prices. Gender equality. High levels of investment in human capital – with almost no private education and low cost kindergarten until the later school-starting age of 6/7.

These differences were all riased by the London based academic Dr Mary Hilson at the last meeting of Nordic Horizons. The fascinating discussion after her talk lasted for several hours.

Personally, I’d also add that none of the Nordic nations have endured the century of division between nationalist and labour movements experienced by Scotland. And I suppose I could throw in the other “opposiitonal” force of business. I’m sure there’s a large bit of research waiting to be done to prove it – but every visit east demonstrates vividly to me that energies harnessed create better outcomes.

The Nordic nations record the highest levels of trust in the world. Trust between people. Trust between people and polticians.  They have the highest levels of child happiness. They also have fit, healthy, forward-thinking and relatively gripe-free  people.  People are the biggest asset of any nation. And the resilient outlook of Nordic people fascinates many Scots – that’s why I’m trying to uncover the reasons for Scotland’s inactive and largely passive lifestyle in a Phd comparing the cabin traditions of Norway and Scotland as part of the North Atlantic Research Group which includes Strathclyde and Oslo Universities.

Turn the map of northern Europe on its side, and you can see a new geography for Scotland. Routes that allowed Viking invasion a thousand years ago now lead to a new, challenging Nordic future – if Scots have the courage to face a new direction and the humility to ask to join.

Lesley Riddoch is currently doing a PhD as part of the North Atlantic Research Group jointly supervised by Strathclyde and Oslo Universities comparing the cabin traditions of Norway and Scotland – and learning Norwegian (slowly!) at evening classes at Edinburgh University!

Comments (27)

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  1. A very well-crafted piece by Lesley Riddoch. The Nordic Horizon would also include current self-governing administrations in the Faroe Islands, the Aland Islands, Svalbard and of course Greenland. These are a wide geographical and political mix of autonomy, devolution and virtual independence as a result of shared histories. (I am excluding Schleswig-Holstein and the Baltic states.) In my possession I have a Faroese beer allowance certificate from a visit in the mid-1980s. Although under the Danish crown, these islands have their own football team and their own parliament. I suppose Shetland would want to imitate the Faroe status. Lesley Riddoch’s piece, however, ignores the Celtic part of the Scottish identity. There had been a proposal to form IONA (Islands of North Atlantic). Scotland does have many identities and as a Scot living in London, I have enjoyed listening to these topics being debated in a sensible manner.

  2. Tearlach MacDaid says:

    Better late than never Lesley.

    Some of us who live North of the London/Urban obsessed central belt have been working with and learning from our North Western and North Eastern cousins for quite a long time. Living and working in the Highlands and Islands, its logical to look at our Nordic cousins, as we share a common Scandinavian style of Rurality, of the sort only seen in the Islands of Ireland and Britain North and West of the Great Glen, and on the Western fringes of Ireland. Even though I’m from the Scottish North Coast I was brought in Shetland in the 60’s, and was imbued with that Islands groups view that they are at the centre, rather then the periphery. And they are – at the centre of the North Atlantic, and they make the most of it.

    So lots of things to learn from the Scandinavia – their bottom up democracy, with Icelandic communes of 80 people voting their own executive mayors, with Swedish Universities of 10,000 students in towns the size of Wick, with Finish and Norwegian public policy explicitly focused on rural areas and rural problems, even though their urban/rural structures are the same as Scotland. So its no surprise that its Norwegian and Danish companies that have been the most successful investors in Highland Scotland, and the Islands.

    The EU have also long recognised this – with specific programmes designed to encouraged inter regional Scandinavian economic and social cooperation. These Intereg programmes – to there eternal credit – explicitly exclude companies, organisations and Universities based in the city regions of Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo and Aberdeen/Edinburgh/Glasgow from being involved. The Scandinavian countries seem quite comfortable with that, but you would not be surprised at the loud squeals from the Central belt. “What do you mean this is only for Teuchter’s?”

    And politics? One of the reasons that the SNP is running rings around everyone else at the moment is that they have – perhaps unconsciously – redefined Scottish politics towards a common Scandinavian model, rather than an Urban UK one. The SNP are a Scandinavian Social Democratic party, simultaneously being pro-business and for social democracy. The fact that the UK parties do seem to be able to recognise this (especially Labour) perhaps shows why they seem to be in such terminal decline.

  3. Tocasaid says:

    I’ve often wondered why Scots nationalists haven’t made more of the ‘Nordic’ situation. Especially against all the Unionist scare stories about border posts, families being split up etc. Make hay with this sunshine.

  4. James says:

    I want to live there

  5. vronsky says:

    Absolutely so, Lesley. I’ve moved from being vigorously pro-Europe (many moons ago) to wanting out of the EU at the earliest opportunity. For a long time I’ve preferred the promise of a more balanced relationship with the like-minded Nordic societies, polities we can learn from instead of those we fear and feel we must resist. Good luck to your venture, and why don’t you form some links with the Independence Convention (if you haven’t already).

  6. Albalha says:

    Undoubtedly the ‘Nordic Model’ has a lot going for it but what about the recent rise of their right wing parties; Danish People’s Party, Norway’s Progress Party, the Sweden Democrats and the True Finns? Should that not be a concern?

  7. Morag Lennie says:

    Sadly, Albalha, there will always be a lunatic fringe, regardless of where you go, however that should not deter us from adopting the best bits of other societal models.I was never in favour of joining the EU, or the Common Market, as it was then, believing that EFTA was the way to go. I would be a very happy Nordic Celt, to see an Independent Scotland, co-operate closely with our Scandinavian cousins, but doubt if I’ll live long enough to see it. Well done Lesley, for pursuing this line of study. I wish you well.

    1. Albalha says:

      The parties I mention are not on the lunatic fringe they’re in the respective governments; cherry picking the best bits fair enough I merely wanted to highlight the fact these countries have prominent right wing politicians and they’re on the increase, something I wouldn’t want to see in an independent Scotland.

      1. Kim says:

        There prominent right wing politicians in many countries, including the one to the south of us and across the Atlantic, it is not just the Nordic nations which has them. The difference is the Nordic nations have a far more open democracy that in some other places, it is notable that after the killing in Norway, the people responded by asking for more democracy and not a shut down of human rights. Whereas in a country closer to home, after a resent civil disturbance in which no one was killed, the immediate reaction was for a crack down on communications and a suspension of the freedom of speech. Also the national elections in Denmark had a turn out of over 80%, when was the last time the electorate was so engaged in this country? There is much we can learn from the Nordic nations.

  8. carandol says:

    not endemic to the ‘north’ but with unluckily obvious elements to draw upon….. and in that theme what of the KKK and the burning cross? From a rally call to defend the community of the locale perverted into ..?????
    Idiocy, fear and downright evil dinnae abide in any given place but abound whaur the ither voices are never heard and so are these things no in themselves symptomatic of failing systems or merely the clamour of (phrase deleted due to inbuilt sense o’decency. 😉

  9. Ossian MacUrcrin says:

    Couldn’t agree more with you Lesley! I’m very pro Gaelic language and culture, but have long been fascinated with the strong cultural, linguistic links that we share with the Scandic countries. Iain Mitchisons’ “The Isles of The North”, opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities that already exist and indeed, are waiting to be created between Scotland and Scandinavia.

    Thoroughly enjoyed this piece and am now further inspired by it as well….might take a few Norwegian lessons myself! 🙂
    Beannachd Leibh.

  10. Thanks for this piece, Lesley, and some interesting comments as well (tapadh leibh, a Thearlaich, gu sonraichte). All the best with the PhD!

  11. I must be reading different news sources but my own ‘folk memory’ is the SNP have looked to the Scandinavian Political Model for inspiration and ideas since 1999.

    The single attempt by the Lib/Lab Devolved Government to do so was the ‘Care Bill’ supporting more old and chronically ill to stay in their own homes rather than blocking hospital beds or overcrowding care homes – the result of that ‘Scottish approach’ was a knife in the back of McConnell, a big bite taken out of the Scottish pocket money by Gordon ‘the clunking fist’ Brown and an upsurge in SNP support which led to the 2007 vote.

    I am another that prefers joining and strengthening EFTA on independence rather than the EU and increasingly poisonous Euro Zone and contend that once established the independent Scottish currency the ‘merk’ will transfer from following sterling to following the Norwegian Krone as Norway is more comparable economically, socially and population wise than London and the SE.

    For those unionists who seek to run down Scotland’s economy at every turn October’s PMI figures show Scotland in rude health compared to the rest of the UK:

    Scotland 51
    London 50.4
    SE England 48.3
    E England 49.1

    Where 50 = no growth, less than 50 = economic contraction.

    As for Willie Bain’s ‘me too’ following of Osbourne’s comments apparently the World’s Boardrooms do not see things as they do. Diageo are investing £20 million expanding capacity for their Scottish whisky brands to meet demand, nearly £1 billion of inward investment has come from such ‘iffy’ businesses as Mitsubishi and others in the renewable sector, Target bought an oil and gas field off Shetland from Exxon for $1.75 billion …. the list of all these international businesses scared to invest in Scotland because of uncertainty goes on and on……. their biggest worry according to the Oil and Gas Industry is in fact Osbourne and his next wheeze to extract more money out of the sector killing exploration and development for the next ten years.

    Lesley – you will have little or no trouble selling your Nordic style of government, where the dead hand of Westminster has already been lifted off Scotland’s Government it is already at work.

  12. vronsky says:

    Apologies for going off-topic, but it’s in a good cause. The MSM won’t touch this story by Craig Murray. Spread it as far as you can.

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