Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature
or

The Nordic countries have been under the spotlight for much of the Scottish independence campaign as nationalists from Alex Salmond down have sought to draw inspiration from the Scandinavian model – particularly greater social equality and prudent stewardship of oil revenues.

But in the Nordic region, the prospect of Scottish independence provokes a mixture of concern and optimism.

Many senior politicians and businessmen regard with dismay the break-up of one of their biggest allies in Europe, a country they have long looked up to and which they see as crucial in holding back a stronger influence from France and the rest of southern Europe.

“I hope it will be a No,” says Karl Petter Thorwaldsson, head of the powerful Swedish trade union confederation LO. Mostly this is because he fears the further “fragmentation of European countries” but, reflecting his political leaning, he adds: “I doubt Great Britain will ever be Labour again if Scotland goes.”

Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, caused consternation in Scotland by warning of the “Balkanisation of the British Isles” in an interview with the Financial Times this summer, reflecting concerns across Nordic capitals that the UK, the biggest member of the bloc of liberal northern countries, could be gravely weakened by a Yes vote, losing not just territory and population but also influence on the world stage.

“If we were to lose the UK [as it is] it would be a significant setback,” he said. “The EU would lose a significant element of global clout. It would be an even bigger disaster for the UK.”

A big worry shared by politicians and many businesses is that Scottish independence could even push the UK towards leaving the EU if a more rightwing parliament, shorn of its Scottish Labour MPs, pushed for it.

“The UK leaving the EU would be a disaster for us – for our companies, for Denmark, Norway [and] Sweden,” said one Danish chief executive.

But away from the elites, it is clear that the Scottish debate stirs up different emotions – including joyful sentiments in some countries stirred by recollections of gaining their own independence.

The occasion most frequently mentioned is Norway’s break from Sweden in 1905. That Norway is today one of the wealthiest countries in the world thanks to its North Sea oil and despite a population of only about 5m people has escaped nobody in Scotland.

In March a group of Norwegian authors – including Jostein Gaarder, author of “Sophie’s World” – wrote to a Scottish newspaper urging a Yes vote, saying: “We offer our support to Scottish aspirations for independence and would like to point out that Norway's independence from Sweden in 1905 has benefited and enriched the political culture of both countries.

“The separation did not lead to weakened co-operation in retrospect, but to a relationship of equality between our countries on every level.”

Norway’s path to independence is not necessarily a neat parallel, however. When Norwegians voted in 1905, 99.95 per cent backed independence – fewer than 200 people opposed it. A Swedish businessman says: “The vote was so overwhelming there could be no doubts.”

But in a far more divided Scotland, the consequences of the vote could lead to prolonged and bitter recriminations. “I worry about the consequences for England and Scotland of a 50-50 vote, whichever side wins.”

Among the smaller Nordic nations, the upcoming vote has been a source of fascination – far more than in the larger states. Huginn Thorsteinsson, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Akureyri in Iceland, says the Scottish debate is being followed more and more closely by locals.

Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1944, he argues, shows what Scotland could achieve. “Denmark is still a great ally even though we received independence. The world did not end.”

He adds: “A very important part of Iceland’s economic success since the second world war was our independence and our control of our natural resources . . . Iceland would very much applaud if Scotland looked to the north.”

The debate is also being followed in the Faroe Islands, an autonomous country which is still part of Denmark but which has had its own independence debate in recent years.

Gunnar Holm-Jacobsen, head of the Faroese foreign service, says: “I think it’s very interesting and I know most people here find it interesting: we have been there ourselves. Our problem has been that, for the last 100 years, the people have been divided.”

A neutral civil servant, Mr Holm-Jacobsen still reflects some of the excitement in Torshavn over the prospect of a Scottish Yes, with some local politicians even flying to Scotland to witness the campaigning. “If Scotland became an independent state we will feel a bit closer to Scotland,” he says.

“Today we are quite far from most countries but if there is a new capital in Edinburgh, power will move closer to our region.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
myFT

Follow the topics mentioned in this article

Follow the authors of this article