2014 Referendum, Adrian Wooldridge, EU Referendum, Euro-Scepticism, European Union, Ideology, Lesley Riddoch, Nigel Farage, Norway, Opinion, Peter Hitchens, Politics, Scotland, Scottish Independence, Utopia
In the run up to the 2014 referendum, we were offered an enticing preview of what an independent Scotland would look like. And this was the nation of Norway.
Norway often appeared to be inhabited by a race of virtuous Martians. The Norwegians were a quant, uber-modern people who had somehow managed to navigate social democracy through the normally treacherous capitalist straits and on into utopia. Everybody in Norway was smugly happy, with their heavenly schools and hospitals, with their bubbling renewables sector and their picture-perfect social justice. When I write “Norway,” I mean Sweden, Finland, and even Denmark as well, for these nations were usually referenced interchangeably. Loudest amongst the champions of the “Nordic model” was Lesley Riddoch, an opera singer in a Viking helmet, who would take to every available stage to belt out unending praise for the mysterious ethnic wisdom of the Norwegians. “It’s time to look east to the world’s most successful democracies,” Riddoch would sing rousingly.
But there was always a subtle distinction somewhere in this. People on the Scottish left would fulsomely admire Norway and its splendid ingenuity. Whenever Riddoch advocated “Norwegian-style outdoors kindergartens to combat poor health outcomes and indoor, sedentary, inactive lifestyles,” this was always the sort of thing that you would expect from Norway. Wow, they’ve dazzled us again with their inventiveness, those plucky Norwegians! Nonetheless, beneath this admiration, I doubt that anybody envied Norway quite to the extent of actually wanting to be Norwegian. People would think of the rounds of communal singing, the buses rolling off to the state kindergartens, the townspeople having their public meetings in which everybody was consulted, and their stomachs would turn.
There was indeed something altogether eerie about Norway. The fact that everybody was so happy came with the possibility that the Norwegians were not entirely sentient. They were, as a people, perceptibly incomplete.
Of course, it was not that anybody seriously wanted to follow Norway’s guidelines for a country. It was rather that Norway always proved invaluable in showing up the defects of our own system. Compared to Norway, the UK looked grubby, wasteful, and soiled with inequality. The Nordic model was henceforth only ever a projection of our own self-hatred. Norway was thus accorded the role of the mother-in-law in the dinner party of nations, waspishly contradicting and belittling us whenever we dared to feel self-congratulatory.
Occasionally ominous reports would reach Scotland about potential fluctuations in Norway’s precise ideological status. Writing in the Scotsman in 2014, Adrian Wooldridge warned that “the Nordic model that the nationalists have fallen in love with disappeared 25 years ago.” Thankfully, the Norwegians were still plucky, still virtuous, and still happily living out their virtuous Martian lifestyles. Yet they were also part of an energetic Thatcherite resurgence. Their mysterious ethnic wisdom had led them to unexpectedly recognise the validity of free-market capitalism. Norway, Wooldridge confided, “is opening its welfare-state to welfare entrepreneurs: the new hospital in Oslo is being built with private money… Norway, just like the rest of Scandinavia, is much closer to Mrs Thatcher’s vision of an entrepreneurial society than to Olaf [sic] Palme’s vision of a socialist paradise.”
So capitalism in Norway was youthful and dynamic, unlike in the UK where ideologically lost politicians were blundering back into an economics which Norway had, in its wisdom, already rejected. This re-reading of Norway was, however, only more self-hatred and only more wallowing in the defects of our own system. I also suspect that Norwegian capitalists were ultimately just as repulsive to a UK audience as Norwegian social democrats. People would think of the army of smirking Norwegian business-school graduates, with their admirable energy and their puppyish happiness at splashing about in the free market, and their stomachs would turn.
Earlier in the year, some alarming and even rather horrible news reached Scotland from the Norwegian utopia. It turned out that Norway was not a member of the European Union! And this was the very organisation for which Lesley Riddoch and her entire nationalist class would sell everything of any value, from a mass participatory democracy to renewed international trade, in order to preserve the UK’s membership.
Suddenly, we had been offered a lurid glimpse of what an independent UK would look like. And this was the nation of Norway.
Some important but underhand ideological trading had taken place here. For the EU had been now robed in the virtuous, socially-relaxed managerialism which the Scottish left had previously perceived in Norway. Riddoch was now claiming that Scots “have good reason to thank the EU; for backing workers’ rights at a time Margaret Thatcher was trying to trample them.” All of the glamour and shiny cleanliness of a foreign social democracy had been thereby grafted on to the EU.
Correspondingly, Norway now looked a bit too smart for its own good. There was now something dysfunctional or even slightly autistic to Norway’s earlier cleverness. However marvellous and ingenious the Norwegian way of life, there was no common sense beneath it all. Look, they are paying hundreds of millions of euros to trade with the EU, without having any input into composing its regulations!
But just as this utopia had been once the darling of the left when it had stood up to Thatcherism, and of the Scottish left when it had provided a viable model of small nationhood, it was now annexed by the Eurosceptic right as the political alternative de jour. In last week’s Guardian debate on the UK’s EU membership, Nigel Farage scoffed about how “dreadful” it must be to be like Norway, “rich, happy and successful.”
Perhaps this right-wing appreciation of utopian Norway has been always there, existing alongside the left-wing one. In 2003 no less a personage than Peter Hitchens from the Mail on Sunday had visited Norway and he was able to report that this country was still just as utopian as it was in the left-wing alternative universe:
Norway is prosperous, happy and free. Its countryside is neat and well husbanded, its towns and cities orderly and comfortable. Its people shame much of Europe by their command of foreign languages, and it runs its own affairs, trading cheerfully with the EU. Its fisheries and farms have not been wrecked or bankrupted, as ours have, by ‘Common’ policies that suit France, Germany or Spain. Its supreme court is in Oslo, not Luxembourg, where ours is. Its monarchy is not menaced by a European president and its flag doesn’t have to fly alongside the EU’s yellow stars.
Note that, in the classical tradition of utopian Norwegian writing, everything about Hitchens’ Norway leads straight back, point by point, to our own inadequacy. Its fish frolic freely in the seas, unlike British fish. Its flag flutters proudly, unlike the British flag. Its countryside is “well husbanded,” unlike our battered fields.
In three thousand years’ time, when we are Communists dwelling in subterranean bunkers, Norway will no doubt still be there. Its virtuous people will still be supremely happy with their innovative kindergartens and their irrepressible prosperity. And we will still be the eternal second best.