Alex Massie

Is Scotland a Nordic Country?

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This is a question that meets the classic definition of John Rentoul's famous-to-them-that-ken series of Questions To Which The Answer Is No. That is, the people asking the question think the answer is Yes when in fact it is No. This question, like many of the SNP's other witticisms, is the brainchild of Angus Robertson, the MP for Moray who might be thought Alex Salmond's answer to Karl Rove. Like Rove, Angus sometimes gets carried away and this suggestion that Scotland is some long-lost Nordic appendage is one of those occasions.

Not that he's alone in wishing Scotland could be redefined in this fashion. Lesley Riddoch had a piece in the Guardian recently making just this argument. Plainly, there are sensible reasons for thinking there could be useful benefits for Scotland in co-operating closely with the likes of Norway and, equally evidently, there are areas of Nordic or Scandinavian policy from which Scotland, whether independent or not, could learn. Typically, of course, these tend to be partial.

Some time ago, I attended a NESTA event at Holyrood on the gripping matter of public sector reform. It became clear that most of those present were deeply enamoured with many things Nordic. This is reasonable: Denmark and Sweden and Norway and Finland are each agreeable, civilised, prosperous places. But, as Riddoch is good enough to acknowledge, the differences between Scotland and these countries are severe.

To begin with the most obvious: Greater Glasgow is more like Cleveland than it is like Stockholm or Copenhagen. The legacies of the race to and retreat from heavy industrialisation are the chief forces behind the gravest social problems Scotland faces. There is no Nordic Rust Belt. So we do not start from the same place at all.

And in terms of culture it is, I should have thought, quite evident that Scotland is not very much like the Nordic countries at all. I fancy that the average Scot feels less "abroad" in New Zealand or Australia or Canada than he or she does in Norway or Finland or Denmark. This is not simply a matter of language (though obviously that is important) but of a shared history greater than anything that extends across the North Sea and a common culture.

Now New Zealand has not needed to grapple with the problems of post-industrialisation either but you might think we could also have a keek at their experience and discover how they've managed their own problems and made a go of things despite being on the wrong side of the world. (And if Scots feel minded to grumble about their neighbours, consider those the Kiwis have been lumbered with...)

In any case, public sector Scotland (a hefty slab of life, to be sure) may not actually be all that interested in learning anything from overseas, lest that challenge its prejudices. So while there are endless hosannas for Nordic social democracy, there are rather fewer for a school choice revolution in Sweden that's vastly more ambitious and adventurous than anything that can be contemplated in poor old Scotia. And if you tell a room full of public sector types that Denmark is a splendid place and we should not be afraid of asking whether, like the Danes, we could have a privatised fire service then there will be much pursing of lips, many a furrowed brow and a definite sense that someone's been let into the room who should not have been.

Of course, perhaps these things would not work in Scotland. The point is less specific policy prescriptions and more a willingness to look at policies that work even though they appear to run contrary to your own ideological preferences. (This applies to partisans on all sides, of course.)

For that matter, there are plenty of differences between the various Scandinavian countries. It's always useful to recall that Denmark comes eighth in the Heritage Foundation's ranking of "economic freedom". If an independent Scotland scored that well then that would be no bad or small thing. To be fair: Alex Salmond appreciates this even if some of his colleagues do not.

Again, however, consider the countries that beat Denmark in this suvey: Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Canada and Ireland. (The USA is ninth, the UK 16th.) We already have quite a bit in common with a good number of these countries.

The Nordic idea, which is not without its merits, is but the latest gambit offered to reassure Scots that independence is not the same as isolation. This is reasonable, not least because it is true. Nevertheless, the search for a new family does rather invite the response that we already have a family rather closer to home and considerably more "natural" than any new North Sea Handfasting. That, of course, is the family the SNP think Scotland should leave. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but that also implies there shouldn't be anything wrong with staying either.

Angus Robertson will chide me, arguing that of course an independent Scotland would have deep and close ties with the rest of the British Isles and of course we would want close relationships with the old Dominions. And of course he would be right. None of that makes it wrong to look to Scandinavia, merely that said look must be about more than social solidarity and high taxes and other things that comfort the Scottish left. At the very least let's also look at mixed and flexible public sector delivery and local government that is both, well, local and government.