The Nordic Model

The Nordic Model

In this theme page, you can find articles, films and podcasts about the Nordic Model.

Many people refer to the Nordic Model in different ways. The Economist proclaimed the Nordic countries as the ‘next supermodel’ in 2013 based on their combination of competitiveness and innovation, equality and wellbeing. Democrat contender for President in the US Bernie Sanders is frequently quoted as putting forward what are often referred to ‘socialist’ or ‘social democratic’ policies based on one or more of the Nordic countries. Also outside the Western hemisphere there is discussion about the Nordic countries, such as Nordic councils being of particular interest in Asia, for example.

What is the Nordic Model?: the social democratic heyday of the mid-20th century

There is no simple answer to the question ‘What is the Nordic model?’ and, in fact, there are many differences, as well as Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Finnish or Norwegian models. That said, since about 1970, the term ‘the Nordic Model’ has been used to denote some key characteristics that the five Nordic countries have in common. You can watch Mary Hilson describe these in the short film 'What is the Nordic Model?'

Most importantly perhaps is the combination of capitalist economies with relatively high levels of taxation and universal welfare benefits, including healthcare.

The political culture is one of multi-party parliamentary democracy dominated by strong social democratic parties and consensus. For example, you can read about political coalitions and parliamentary culture, which is often contrasted with more adversarial ones, such as, in Washington. Similarly, policy-making is more consensual with a greater level of negotiation and collective bargaining between employers and workers via trade unions in the labour market. Corporatism can also be seen in other contexts as well.

During the social democratic heyday of the mid-20th century, the Nordic countries were almost exclusively seen as neutral or 'non-aligned' from a defence point of view. This remains largely true despite Denmark, Norway and Iceland being founding members of NATO in 1949. During the Cold War, they had a unique status between the Eastern and Western blocs. You can read more about Norway's status during the Cold War and Denmark's status during the Cold War, for example.

These states were also among the earliest to introduce lauded measures of open government in the Nordics and are often seen as examples of transparency and lack of corruption with high levels of public trust.

Although many of these aspects still hold true, they hark heavily back to the social democratic heyday in the mid-20th century in the Nordic region.

The Nordic Model eroded since 1990?

It is generally accepted that since the early 1990s the Nordic Model in its traditional sense has been disappearing, or at the very least has been significantly challenged (See the article 'Is the Nordic model in danger?', for example). Various internal and external factors have been highlighted as the cause for this, as set out in our article 'The Nordic welfare state: staying fit-for-purpose'. Neo-liberalism heralded the individual and market as more important than the old meaning of collectivity and 'the people's home', and the socialist overtures inherent in these old ideas of the Nordic Model are increasingly being shrugged off - for better or for worse. If you would like a more specific example, you can read about how unemployment insurance was tied to trade unions in the ‘Ghent’ Nordic countries. Recently Finland, for example, allowed the setting up of independent insurance schemes.

PICTURE: The Nordic model should not be considered to be the same as a strong state and/or interventionist economic policy. Aleksanterinkatu, Helsinki, Finland. Photo: Tapio Haaja, Unsplash.

With respect to Denmark specifically, you can watch a short film (in Danish with English sub-titles) tracking the developing of the welfare state from a tentative start around 1900 to its development as a social democratic project in 1960s. It sets out that the welfare state remains strongly accepted in Denmark even though it is under pressure and its design is continuously debated.

Associate Professor from the Centre of Nordic Studies at Helsinki University, Johan Strang gives examples of how the Nordics have moved away from the traditional idea of Nordicity since the end of the Cold War in this short film. These include the fact that democracy has become more based on the rights of the individual with the influence of, amongst other things, human rights. He also describes how they have moved away from collective participation and negotiation which was more prevalent during the mid-20th century. There has also been the shift from neutrality to a greater sense of Nordic cooperation around defence. Despite their humanitarian reputation, the production and export of arms has been significant in the Nordic countries (except Iceland). 

Globalisation and the need to keep up with financial markets has also inevitably played a role, and you can read about this from an economic point of view, as well as its impact on society as a whole such as the recent rise of populism.

A more multi-ethnic population is also frequently quoted as a challenge to the Nordic Model. While this can be deeply problematic as it can lead to assumptions that racial homogeneity was a factor in the ‘success’ of the Nordic Model, the increase in multiculturalism must not be overlooked.

The use of the ‘Nordic Model’ for political means: a varying concept

Bernie Sanders refers to the Nordics to give a concrete idea of future (some say socialist) policy ideas. Macron refers to the Nordics to give a concrete idea of future policy ideas where the state embraces neo-liberalism. Fox TV news presenter Trish Regan refers to Denmark as a socialist country like Venezuela and therefore not to be emulated under any circumstances. The White House report 'The Opportunity Costs of Socialism' heavily criticizes socialism and aspects of the Nordic Model in particular. Some economists criticise the Nordics as they do not resemble the 'textbook' model of efficiency with large public sectors, with extensive and generous welfare systems, a high level of taxation and considerable state involvement. What is one then to believe?

The term the Nordic Model should be used with caution as it can apparently mean many different things leading the renowned Finnish historian Pauli Kettunen describing the Nordic model as a single model with five exceptions. Listen to a podcast discussing the myriad of ways the Nordic model has been seen and used over the last century: The Nordic Model: Heaven or Hell?

Podcasts are available on YouTube with subtitles:

Here is a list of articles, in the order that they have been published, that are to do with the Nordic Model theme:

From an 18th century manuscript of an Icelandic saga about King Gylfi. Picture: Árni Magnússon Institute, Iceland/Wikimedia. Public Domain.

2019.09.18 | The Quick Read, Agnes Arnórsdóttir, Nation building, Region-building, Aarhus University

History of Iceland, Vikings to early 19th century

Iceland was a largely uninhabited island in the northern Atlantic Ocean where Norsemen settled around 870. It began as a ‘free state’ but became a Norwegian province in the years 1262/64. As a dependency of Norway, Iceland came under the Danish-Norwegian Crown in 1380 and was in reality a Danish dependency from 1660. During the course of the 19th…

The modern flag of Iceland, which was adopted in 1918 when Iceland gained independence from Denmark. It was officially recognised in the Law of the National Flag of Icelanders and the State Arms in 1944 when Iceland became a republic. Photo: Public Domain.

2019.09.11 | The Quick Read, Agnes Arnórsdóttir, Nation building, Democracy, Aarhus University

History of Iceland, 1840s to the Second World War

Even though Iceland remained under Danish rule, the Icelandic ‘Althing’ was restored in 1845 as a national consultative assembly, and in 1874 the country obtained a constitution giving the Althing its own legislative power. Home rule was introduced in 1904, and in 1918 Iceland became an independent and sovereign state in personal union with…

2019.09.10 | Outlook, Thorsten Borring Olesen, Democracy, Nation building, Research, Aarhus University

Buying Greenland? Trump, Truman and the 'Pearl of the Mediterranean'

In the summer of 2019, the Trump Administration voiced an interest in buying Greenland from Denmark. The historical background for this stretches at least as far back as a case brought by Norway at the International Court in 1933 when it was decided that Denmark had full sovereignty over Greenland. Since then, Danish governments have engaged in…

Þingvellir, where Iceland was declared an independent republic on 17th June 1944, is a rich historic site and a popular tourist destination. Photo: Colourbox.

2019.09.04 | The Quick Read, Agnes Arnórsdóttir, Nation building, Governance, Aarhus University

History of Iceland from 1944

After a referendum almost unanimously in favour, Iceland was declared an independent republic on 17th June 1944 at Þingvellir. Denmark did not, however, repeal the law which set out the terms of its personal union with Iceland until 1950. Since then, Iceland has been able to re-claim much of its cultural heritage from Danish institutions.…

Map of Iceland from 1500s by Gerard Mercator (1512-1594), a cartographer from the Netherlands, which was first published in his extensive 'atlas', completed and published by his son in the year after Mercator's death. Mercator was the first to use the word 'atlas' for a collection of maps. From: The Royal Library, The Picture Collection (CC-BY-NC-ND).

2019.08.26 | Article, Agnes Arnórsdóttir, Nation building, Region-building, Aarhus University

History of Iceland

Iceland was a largely uninhabited island in the northern Atlantic Ocean, where Norsemen settled around 870. It began as a ‘free state’ at first but became a Norwegian province in the years 1262/64. As a dependency of Norway, Iceland came under the Danish-Norwegian Crown in 1380 and became, in reality, a Danish dependency from 1660. During the…

UN Member States were informed about Greenland's change of status from a colony to a county in 1954. Photo: Courtesy of UN publications.

2019.08.19 | Article, Simon Mølholm Olesen, Governance, Nation building, Aarhus University

The Danish decolonisation of Greenland, 1945-54

An international discussion on decolonisation followed in the aftermath of the Second World War in the mid-1940s. The newly formed United Nations created some of the most important platforms for these discussions. Consequently, Danish politicians and civil servants feared that Greenland, the last of the Danish colonies, would attract negative…

With the stroke of a pen by their foreign minister, the Americans acknowledged Danish sovereignty to the whole of Greenland. Photo: Nicola Thomas, Unsplash.

2019.06.21 | Original sources, Nation building, Law

USA's declaration on Danish sovereignty of Greenland, 1916

On 4th August 1916, the American government issued a declaration to the Danish government that it would not raise objections if Denmark extended its interests in Greenland to include the entire island. This was perhaps surprising given the 1832 Monroe Doctrine intended to limit European colonialism. The declaration paved the way for recognition of…

Danes arriving in Flensburg from Copenhagen and elsewhere for the 1920 vote on whether the Middle Schleswig zone should be Danish or German.

2019.06.12 | Film, Nation building, Minorities, Aarhus University

Drawing the German-Danish border: the vote in Flensburg, 1920

Go to Flensborg, Germany, in 1920 and see firsthand what it was like during the plebiscite on 14th March. Would Flensborg and central Schleswig remain German or become a new part of Denmark? Klaus Tolstrup Petersen, historian and director of the Schleswig Collection (Danish Central Library for South Schleswig), explains in Danish with English…

Poster from 1920. Picture: Drawn by Rasmus Christiansen.  Rigsarkivet (CC BY-SA 2.0).

2019.06.07 | Film, Nation building, Minorities, Aarhus University

Drawing the German-Danish border: posters and propaganda from 1920

Go with Klaus Tolstrup Petersen, historian and director of the Schleswig Collection (Danish Central Library for South Schleswig), back to 1920 when a plebiscite was held on whether the area of northern and middle Schleswig would be Danish or German. Take a look at the many posters and propaganda that were used to try to sway voters in this film in…

Niels Simonsen's 'Tilbagetoget fra Dannevirke' [The Retreat from Dannevirke], 1864.

2019.05.01 | The Quick Read, Rasmus Glenthøj, Culture, Nation building

The meaning of the Second Schleswig War ('1864') in Denmark

Denmark lost a third of its territory and 40% of its population in the Second Schleswig War in 1864 to Prussia and Austria. Seen as both a national trauma and the creation of modern-day Denmark, narratives regarding the war that were created at the time - and since - continue to resonate, exemplified by recent debates over its portrayal in TV…

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Further reading

  • Erik Einhorn and John Logue, Modern Welfare States: Scandinavian Politics and Policy in the Global Age (New York: Praeger, 2003).
  • Francis Sejersted, The Age of Social Democracy. Norway and Sweden in the Twentieth Century, translated Richard Daly, edited Madeleine B Adams (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
  • Mary Hilson, Silke Neunsinger and Iben Vyff, eds., Labour, Unions and Politics under the North Star: The Nordic Countries 1700-2000 (Oxford: Berghahn, 2017).
  • Mary Hilson, The Nordic Model since 1945 (London: Reaktion Books, 2008).
  • Nik Brandal, Øivind Bratberg and Dag Einar Thorsen, The Nordic Model of Social Democracy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
  • Øystein Sørensen and Bo Stråth, eds., The Cultural Construction of Norden (Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 1997).