Scotland and Norway: a special relationship?
Alex Salmond’s dream of a northern arc of prosperity could yet come true as the two countries rediscover ancient bonds
guardian.co.uk,Tuesday 4 October 2011 11.58 BST
It always seemed too good to be true. And today it is all too easy to ridicule Alex Salmond for his vision of a far northern «arc of prosperity«, flexing from Reykjavik down to Dublin then across Scotland to Oslo: when the Celtic Tiger was flattened on the road like any other poor moggy, Salmond’s drive towards independence for Scotland seemed to falter.
But only long enough for Salmond to realign his focus. The pinpoint of his gaze is now directed with laser beam concentration on the country he has often described as the ideal model for a modern Scotland. Interviewed by the BBC a year ago he said: «Norway has breezed through recession more successfully than any other country in Europe … Guess which other country in northern Europe is backed by a trillion pounds of remaining value of oil and gas in the North Sea?»
The Scottish market for Norway’s gas has become hugely important to Oslo. But officially Norway’s ministers have been reluctant to imbue Salmond’s perception of a Nordic version of the special relationship with too much political substance. At a popular level, however, Salmond’s persistence may be reaping rewards. People in Norway seem increasingly to share his opinion that Scots and Norwegians were always meant to play together.
In the last decade, malt whisky clubs have spread across Norway like a virulent rash, retail sales of single malts doubling in the same period. Next month the Oslo Whisky Festival will be held for the eighth time. I have had the rather surreal pleasure of being toastmaster at several Burns suppers and always come home asking myself: What’s got into them? Why on earth would Scandinavians without a drop of Celtic blood between them, gather to recite the Selkirk Grace, pipe in a haggis and honour the Ayrshire Bard?
Part of the answer was supplied last Friday, when Norwegian publishing house Cappelen Damm held a party to launch the first popular study of Shetland, Orkney, and the Hebrides. Kirsti Jareg, author of Øyene i Vest (The Islands in the West) hopes not so much to ride the wave of interest for Scotland, as to raise its swell into something more important: a new awareness of the strength of ancient bonds. She told me: «There is a great commonality of character to the two peoples. A peculiar duality of vulnerability and robustness that each of them recognises in the other.»
Jareg has of course the annals of history and recent scientific studies to back up her point. Almost half of all people on Shetland today have Viking ancestry. On Orkney the figure is 30%. Northern Scotland remained under Norwegian rule and colonisation for centuries. Today’s Viking hordes opt for short-haul planes rather than longboats. They find a culture they already feel they know, and a welcome they have hardly ever known. The isles in the west might become for Scandinavians what the Channel Islands were for the English before cheap airfares and the export of Irish bars, chip shops, and package tour ghettos: a taste of exotic culture with no risk of your roots drying out.
But Dark Age heritage and a shared taste for a quality tipple are hardly the makings of a political agenda. Indeed, insulated from the chills of recession, the traditionally protectionist Norwegians don’t feel the same economic imperative as the Scottish government does to big up small-fry neighbours.
In the early 1990s, at exactly the same time as Norway became a creditor country, a new phrase was coined by isolationists to describe their home: The Different Country. And until now it has been the bon mot of modern Norwegian realpolitik. But other forces have to be at work on both sides of the North Sea to prepare for a new approaching reality, for the post-oil future.
Norwegians will look to how much of their values they share with neighbours, rather than how much they differ. In the long term there is both cultural logic and economic sense for Norway to work alongside Iceland, Ireland and Scotland towards a sustainable arc of prosperity.