Independent Scotland may turn to the Nordic nations

Northern nation looks to its neighbours for inspiration and effective social welfare model

Existing on the fringes of a fragile union, they fish, harvest energy from the sea, air and ground, and call their children ‘bairns’ – the Scots seem to have a lot in common with Scandinavians.

And yet their recent history has seen them develop a fractious relationship with England to the south, rather than with their one-time colonisers from the north and east.

And their gaze may be starting to shift. Last week the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) revealed that if Scotland gained full independence from the United Kingdom, they would look to their Nordic neighbours for “partnerships, trade and key defence relationships, rather than continuing to focus on Western Europe and the Commonwealth, as the UK does now”.

Interest in the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Finland and the Faroe and Ã…land Islands) is on the increase in Scotland as it prepares to hold a referendum in the next few years on independence. At the forefront of this movement is the Edinburgh-based think tank Nordic Horizons. Co-founded by British journalist Lesley Riddoch, the group holds well-attended meetings in the Scottish parliament to discuss whether Scotland could learn from their neighbours across the North Sea.

“The Scots have this perception that we are as far north as it gets – it’s a miracle we’re still alive! But when you see countries that are further north but more socially developed, it completely changes your thinking because it makes you not only realise what’s possible, but also what you could have been achieving the whole time,” Riddoch said.

The Scandinavian model of social welfare is often high on the agenda at Nordic Horizon events – a meeting this October was entitled ‘The revolution will be Nordic’. Social welfare in Scotland has been cut massively in recent years, with only the public health service, NHS, really remaining. Riddoch points to the 2,760 elderly Scots whose cold homes led to them dying from hypothermia last winter as an indication of the lack of Scotland’s available welfare.

Kim Minke, the head of the Danish Cultural Institute in Edinburgh, confirmed that Scandinavian welfare states were the subject of much discussion at Nordic Horizon’s meetings – discussions he tries to keep grounded in reality.

“After moving here two years ago [from Denmark] I found that we have a lot in common, especially the way they have a vision for a welfare state which is far more spoken about than in England,” Minke said. “But if they think the welfare state will go on unaltered in Denmark, they’re wrong and it’s up to us to keep them abreast of changes. They have a rosy view of the Danish welfare state – that there are no problems.”

But while welfare is facing cutbacks in Denmark, Riddoch argued that Scandinavian countries werenÂ’t likely to see the same level of privatisation that Scotland has.

“What I’ve noticed is that when I speak to Scandinavians, they are quick to say their systems aren’t perfect and that they’re moving in our direction, towards privatisation. But a lot of people here would get out their megaphones and scream: ‘Don’t do it!’ We’re surveying the wreckage of a laissez faire deregulated market. We lost our welfare, [Denmark is] just looking to change it.”

According to Riddoch, the interest in social welfare probably stems from a shared religious background with foundations in equality and fairness rather than self interest.

“The Lutheran Presbyterian connection is significant,” she said. “It really hates hierarchy and inequality. Scots are down to earth, believe equality is important, and believe in a welfare state.”

But there is more to be learnt from the Nordic countries than how to run a welfare state. The real inspiration could be that, despite their size, they independently manage to sustain themselves through similar industries, from energy production and fishing to manufacturing and agriculture.

Scotland has a population of a little over five million, slightly smaller than Denmark (5.5 million) and a touch larger than Norway (4.9 million).

“The Nordic countries are very interesting,” Riddoch said. “They are so similar and yet fiercely want to run themselves. You don’t need to be massive to want to run yourself differently.”

Regardless of whether Scotland actually achieves independence, their size and shared cultural background with the Nordics, makes it seem rather natural that they would look this way for inspiration and friendship. The question is: what took them so long?