Another Scandinavian-themed guest today, gratefully received from Dom Hinde, a Scots Green activist and doctoral student in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh who has blogged with us before.
When you count down the list of European colonial powers, and consider the various past misdemeanours of Britain, France, Portugal and Belgium to name but a few, it is likely that most people will miss Denmark off from the list.
Our cuddly social-democratic neighbour to the east, producer of gritty crime dramas beloved by the middle class cultural consumers who watch BBC 4 and living standards that draw loving glances across the North Sea from Holyrood and Westminster alike, is still that most outdated of institutions – a European colonial power.
They say that the sun never set on the British empire, but for six months of the year at least this was also true of the Danes, who had the North Atlantic sewn up through their dominion over the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland on the Arctic rim throughout the same period.
Iceland took the step to full independence after the second world war, in part because the conflict had cut it off from its colonial master , making it difficult for the Danes to re-establish control. The Faroe Islands however remained part of the Kingdom of Denmark, obtaining a form of self-government which gave them control over domestic affairs. The majority of foreign policy, defence and policing is reserved to Copenhagen, and the islands still collect a generous subsidy each year from Denmark, the reasons for which are open to debate depending on whether you consider yourself a Faroese unionist or a nationalist.
The other night in Thorshavn, the Faroes’ diminuitive capital with more than a shade of Lerwick about it, I ended up at a concert and poetry evening in support of independence, organised under the auspices of the Leftist Green Tjóðveldi (Republic) party. Of the four main parties in the Faroes, there are left- and right-wing versions of both the unionist and independence movements. Much as is the case in Scotland, the social-democratic and conservative parties favour staying with Denmark whilst the Green Leftists and the centre-right nationalist People’s Party Fólkaflokkurin favour dissolution of the union for democratic and nationalistic reasons respectively.
The high degree of devolution enjoyed by the Faroese means that, on the ground at least, you get the impression of being in a fully independent country, aided by the existence of a national football team and a unique language. Sound familiar? What is more complex, however, is the effect which the current devolution settlement has on the country. Unionists point to the generous government grants from Copenhagen as being vital to the nation’s survival, whilst nationalists argue that such handouts and the restrictions of economic aid mean that the islands are unable and unwilling to seize control of their own future. The Faroes are not without their problems, and there exists real poverty and stagnation in certain parts of the country.
Furthermore, the nature of the kind of specific devolution offered to Scotland and the Faroes undermines any idea of an equitable union. The other regions of Denmark enjoy nowhere near as much power as the Faroese (The Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark but not the Danish State). The use of the Danish Krone for example is problematic for the Faroes, it being tied to the Euro and geared toward maintaining a balance of trade between mainland Denmark and Germany, despite the Faroes themselves not being part of the EU. I have always been of the opinion that any solution which sees Scotland remaining in the UK must also involve a fundamental restructuring of British politics so as to offer the four Home Nations equal power on an equal footing for democratic reasons.
Radically deeper devolution does, however, have its advantages. It has allowed the Faroes to reach a point where they can debate independence knowing full well what it entails, rather than the Scottish model of being asked to jump from a severely limited legislative parliament to an as yet unspecified vision of independence. I was intrigued to see that Alex Salmond has committed an independent Scotland to a cut in corporation tax, something which he has no right or authority to promise given that he may not even be First Minister in four years time and cannot do it at present. As the Faroes show, devo max is not a solution to the independence debate, but it does provide an arena in which the question of self-determination does not become a referendum on the popularity and wisdom of a 57-year old white male.