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Why we should dump Anglo-America and learn from the Nordic Countries

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Jostein Gaarder, author of ‘Sophie’s World’

Yesterday the Sunday Herald published an open letter from 17 leading Scandinavian writers and journalists that endorsed the Yes campaign and attacked Better Together. Today Bella Caledonia is re-publishing the letter alongside a comment piece by Pete Ramand and James Foley, co-founders of the Radical Independence Campaign and authors of Yes: The Radical Case for Independence, which argues that an independent Scotland should abandon Anglo-American capitalism for Nordic social democracy.

We, writers from Norway and Sweden, are only too well aware that there will be a referendum in Scotland on 18 September 2014 to vote for or against independence.

We have been taken aback by the campaign of fear that is being launched by the political parties in London in order to maintain the Union.

We offer our support to Scottish aspirations for independence and would like to point out that Norway’s independence from Sweden in 1905 has benefited and enriched the political culture of both countries.

The separation did not lead to weakened cooperation in retrospect, but to a relationship of equality between our countries on every level.

Bearing this in mind, we hope you vote for independence.

Signed by: Thorvald Steen, novelist, essayist and poet; Jon Fosse, dramatist; Mustafa Can, novelist and journalist; Jostein Gaarder, novelist; Anne B. Ragde, novelist; Kjersti A. Skomsvold, novelist; Arne Ruste, poet, essayist and novelist; Ingvild Burkey, poet and editor; Paal Helge Haugen, novelist and children’s author; Frode Grytten, author and journalist; Tom Egeland, novelist; Bengt Berg, poet; Torgeir Rebolledo Pedersen, writer, architect and songwriter; Thor Sørheim, author; Mette Karlsvik, author and journalist; Gro Dahle, poet and children’s author; Knut Ødegård, poet and writer.

That’s a touching and prescient contribution by some of the most talented and intelligent of our northern neighbors, reminding us that we are part of a wider (and more progressive) archipelago to the North. This essay puts it in context:  ‘Why we should dump Anglo-America and learn from the Nordic countries’:

By James Foley & Pete Ramand

Last week, an Oxfam report revealed that the UK’s top five families own as much wealth as the poorest 20 percent of Brits combined. The figure proves, if any doubt remained, that Britain’s ‘open’ economy leads to a ‘closed’ society. Defending these injustices can make even the most zealous unionists queasy, but still, they ask, what are the alternatives for Scotland?

The SNP leadership plans, to some extent at least, to swap British laissez-faire capitalism for Nordic social democracy. Backed by initiatives like Nordic Horizons and the Common Weal, they claim Scandinavian policies would generate greater equality and faster growth, balancing private enterprise with a social safety net. It sounds appealing. So appealing, in fact, that some Labour supporters express identical goals, although their preferred delivery mechanism is further devolution.

The evidence in support of the Scandinavian approach is solid. Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland have higher living standards than the UK, greater productivity, and narrower gaps between rich and poor. In their influential book, The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that, with Nordic levels of equality, British society as a whole would improve. Trust between citizens would increase; rates of mental illness would fall; life expectancy would rise; and homicide rates would reduce by as much as three-quarters.

Politically, too, the Nordic countries are livelier than Britain. In a recent index of the world’s most democratic societies, they occupied five of the top ten places, while the UK finished 19th. The rise of far-right populism in Nordic societies is worrying, but then Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian greens and socialists have traditionally enjoyed greater influence than their British counterparts.

However, the Nordic model doesn’t deserve uncritical enthusiasm. In recent years, Sweden, in particular, has moved away from social democracy towards market fundamentalism, beginning with the whole or partial privatisation of 35 out of 70 state enterprises in the early 1990s. The impact of this public fire-sale has not been positive. According to the OECD, in the past 25 years, Sweden has experienced the fastest growth in inequality of any developed society. Last year, Stockholm saw five nights of rioting – a protest against growing unemployment, social injustice and immigration. Today, Sweden is a laboratory for free market reform, and a beacon for Con-Dem fanatics.

Although, compared to Britain, Norway and Denmark remain paragons of ethical geo-politics, both countries still have their failings. Successive Danish governments have been enthusiastic supporters of NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan, and all Nordic countries backed America’s war on terror without question. Norway’s state-run oil company, Statoil, admired by many Scottish nationalists, makes some dubious investments decisions which have damaged both human rights and the environment.

But countless examples point in the opposite direction.

In Finland, it is illegal to charge school fees or stream children by academic ability. Until the age of seven, pupils do not attend strict lessons, they just play, and they address teachers by first names. Moreover, as The Guardian has reported, “there are no inspectors, no exams until the age of 18, no school league tables, no private tuition industry, no school uniforms”. Ideas such as these were anathema to New Labour, and are just as unattractive to Michael Gove. Yet Finland has the highest educational standards in the world, and pioneers the knowledge-based economy, ranking third in global competitiveness.

The lessons for Scotland are clear. Countries with higher levels of taxation than the UK do not face an exodus of ‘talent’, as unionists claim. If we spend wisely on education, backed by a modern, anti-elitist education system, we will produce – and retain – talent of our own. Small economies are not less secure than larger economies. Britain, Italy and Spain have all suffered prolonged post-crash downturns, and those small countries that have experimented with Anglo-Saxon deregulation, such as Iceland and Ireland, were hit much more severely than the core Nordic economies. For all their faults, the Scandinavian countries remain among the most solid economies in the world, and maintain, despite recent neoliberal reforms, a significant degree of community and government ownership.

The Nordic model matters because it demonstrates that Scotland can do better. Leveraged as it is on the financial services industry and cheap retail labour, British capitalism is structurally weak. An independent Scotland shouldn’t aim to simply imitate Scandinavian social democracy. It should adopt its best features – strong public and industrial infrastructures, low levels of inequality, a first rate educate system – and adapt them to specific Scottish needs. Then Scotland should aim to set precedents of its own.

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  1. hektorsmum says:

    We finally managed to get to all the Nordic Countries last year and were blown away by those people we managed to meet. We have more in common with them and we found that to be very true, much more than expected that when in Gothenburg the guide told us about the jobs created by Scotsmen and showed us the Church also created by the same family. We found the Swedes laughed at the fact that much of the West Coast fishing villages now had Norwegian owners and that many were considering asking if they could join with Norway (joke).
    We can learn from them, trouble is our neighbours would be reluctant.

  2. Barontorc says:

    It’s so refreshing top get such a can-do comment instead of corrosive negativity – a breath of Scandinavian fresh air indeed.

  3. Lots of positive thought from real friends,that is how I understood the blog,thanks for writing it,and more power to your words.

  4. Alex Buchan says:

    It’s difficult to express how it feels to know that others are watching and can see what’s going on. Also difficult to comprehend the integrity of the cultural life of Norway and Sweden when British culture, and the BBC in particular, is so lacking in principle. I would love to see a mass poster campaign or something with that letter.

  5. benmadigan says:

    have attempted to reblog this on eurofree3.wordpress.com. Am not sure I have done it right – it’s the thought that counts!!!

  6. bjsalba says:

    There are some good things in the USA – the problem is that those are the things that we never import!

  7. Abulhaq says:

    We must not be wearing rose-tinted spex when dealing with Scandinavia. There is a fair amount of racism which the home-grown neo-nazi elements exploit as regional politics drifts rightward. Sweden is a major arms dealer. Nato supporting Denmark has produced a really hawkish Secretary General. We should go our own way and not tie ourselves to others outlooks. The grass on the other side is rarely greener. We need to get out of the vicious habit of following.

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