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!

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