How Nordic is Scotland?

A Scottish-Nordic commonality and kinship has been invoked at a political level by Scottish – and sometimes Nordic – politicians and commentators. Since the 1960s, the Nordic model has arguably been held up as an ideal for Scotland. A fitting example of this alignment is Scotland’s education system and implementation of the famous “baby box” policy from Finland. Debating how 'Nordic' Scotland is can help the country define itself and where it is headed, and is a device that has been harnessed by think tanks and political parties alike.
The Quiraing, Scotland. Photo: George Hiles, Unsplash.

Historical connections between Scotland and the Nordic Region

Bonds between Scotland and the Nordics can be traced all the way back to old Norse or Viking times (circa 800-1050), with the term “Norse” commonly applied to the Viking diaspora that settled in the North Atlantic islands in and beyond Britain. Northern Scotland was a Norse domain for several centuries, especially the Isles of Orkney and Shetland. The Vikings who settled in Scotland intermarried with the local population, resulting in cultural exchange between the Norse and the Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of Scotland. This exchange can still be seen today in many Scottish place names and words, which have Norse origins. For example, the towns of Wick and Lerwick derive their names from the old Norse word vik which translates to bay/inlet/small creek, and the town of Laxdale translates to salmon valley (lax dalr in old Norse). The Scottish word bairn (child) derives from old Norse barn, and the Scottish word for church, kirk, comes from old Norse kirkja. Scotland and the Nordic countries also share a similar religious history, namely, the adoption of Protestantism during the Protestant Reformation, albeit resulting in different denominations, since Scotland adopted Presbyterianism while Lutheranism prevailed in the Nordic countries.

There are also all sorts of family ties between Scotland and the Nordic countries such as connections between historical figures, including the Scottish links of the 19th century composer Edvard Grieg of Norway, and those of Margaret of Scotland, who became Queen of Norway in the 13th century. The English-Scottish Hamilton clan, a Scottish noble family, has numerous Swedish connections through notable members like the Swedish Member of Parliament Carl B. Hamilton (from the Liberal Party, Liberalerna) and former head of Swedish Television Eva Hamilton, who was recognized as “Sweden’s most powerful woman in media” by Veckans Affärer in 2007.

Modern links across the North Sea and the Atlantic

Today, Scotland and the Nordic countries still share many cultural similarities, including a strong tradition of storytelling, a love of the outdoors, and an appreciation for music and the arts. Extensive North Sea cooperation can be found between Scotland and the Nordic region in trade, fishing, and energy extraction. Moreover, the combined inward investment from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden puts the Nordic region in the top five of inward investment sources for Scotland. For instance, there are some 110 Norwegian owned businesses in Scotland that generate a turnover of £2.23 billion and employ around 6,000 people.

The Scottish Parliament – which opened in 1999 – has 129 seats and is unicameral. The system of government was envisioned as being more proportional than Westminster, with a greater reliance on committees and coalition governments being more likely. While the vision at least for the Scottish Parliament was to be more consensual and akin to the Nordic democracies than Westminster’s majoritarian and adversarial tradition, it has not really developed in this way.

Why is being seen as Nordic important to Scotland?

Being seen as ‘Nordic’ and having closer ties to the Nordic countries may well have concrete benefits for Scotland. The Nordic countries are key Scottish trading partners outside the United Kingdom, with the value of Scottish exports amounting to around £2.6 billion in 2019 (total exports to the European Union were worth £16.4 billion in the same year). The Scottish National Party see developing business connections with the Nordics as a key priority, especially in renewable energy that boasts vast potential.

Being part of the Nordic club would also likely enhance Scotland’s international standing, given the Nordic countries strong reputation and tradition of political cooperation and collaboration on the international stage. It could also provide opportunities for Scotland to enhance cross-cultural understanding and showcase its own cultural traditions, such as the Tartan Noir crime fiction vis-a-vis Nordic Noir. Likewise, some non-governmental actors, such as the Nordic Horizons think tank and the Nordic Scotland Sustainability Summit, are already working to share and learn best practices from different aspects of the Nordic model.

The Scottish National Party has been particularly influenced by the Nordic region in the creation of its social democratic self-image. As the party grew from an originally single-issue party (Scottish independence), it followed Nordic-inspired visions for a future progressive Scotland, stressing the “compatibility” of the extensive Scottish welfare state – with a public sector responsible for social services, research, and education – with the Nordic social democratic welfare state. The SNP’s political values of combining economic growth, environmental concerns, and social democracy at least point to commonalities between Scottish and Nordic policy traditions and ideology.

Scotland’s “Nordicity” rooted in an idealized future progression

The Nordic region is also something that is discursively represented as a political alternative for Scotland vis-a-vis the United Kingdom and appeals to Scotland’s self-image as (more) egalitarian. The two most significant “Others” for Scotland’s collective sense of “Self” are arguably the Nordic region and England/Britain. An Oslo University PhD dissertation by Laila Berg (“If they can do it, why can’t we?” Popular Perceptions of the Nordic Region in Scotland) concludes that, in Scotland, the Nordic region is widely regarded as a social-democratic and egalitarian “ideal” for what Scotland can aspire to become post-Brexit. Contemporary Scottishness is given meaning through comparison to these other collective groups, with the Nordic “Other” seen more positively than the English “Other”, the latter seen in a negative political light given the dominance of the centre-right at Westminster since 2010 with Scotland by and large voting for centre-left parties. While the historical and cultural bonds between Scotland and the Nordic countries are significantly less extensive than those between Scotland and England, political discourse emphasizing Scottish-Nordic commonalities help highlight perceived differences between Scots and the English. Scotland’s “Nordicity” is therefore rooted in an idealized future progression and an historical self-image, a political alternative for an independent nation, instead of a palpable political reality.

Formal ties between Scotland and the Nordic Region

In 1994, the first ever high-level meeting of Scottish and Nordic senior government officials took place at Ackergill Tower against the backdrop of Finland and Sweden’s accession to the European Union. A Scottish-Nordic network was subsequently created in association with the Nordic Council of Ministers. The Nordic Council of Ministers promotes cooperation among government officials from its member nations, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, and autonomous territories, Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland. The Nordic Council – a separate but connected institution - fosters co-operation among parliamentarians.

On 30th January 2020 – a day before Brexit formally took effect – a delegation from the Nordic Council visited the Scottish Parliament to discuss the importance of the close historical and cultural bonds, and continued cooperation between the Nordic region and Scotland. The timing of this meeting was telling: The visit was part of the Nordic Council’s international strategy to ensure that the United Kingdom will continue to be a natural partner for the Nordic countries after Brexit.

The Scottish parliamentary election in 2021 resulted in a victory for the Scottish National Party (SNP) securing their fourth consecutive term in government. Former Finnish Center Party Member of Parliament and Nordic Council representative Mikko Kärnä tweeted his congratulations to the SNP shortly after the election - and added he would launch an initiative to have Scotland join the Nordic Council as an observer. Whether this is realistic or not, it is clear that Scotland is seeking to strengthen diplomatic links and ties between people, culture, and economies: In August 2022, the Scottish Government opened a Nordic office in Copenhagen which aims to improve cooperation opportunities, working to attract investment in Scotland while helping to foster connections in business, culture, politics, and academia.

The question of Scotland's membership in the Nordic club formally or informally remains an interesting one, and one that is often harnessed for different reasons.

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