There have, in the past week, been a few noteworthy articles regarding the Scandinavian shadow which looms large over the issue of Scottish independence, as well as the future and makeup of Scotland’s economy, welfare system and society more generally.
Now I write this as somebody who knows a fair deal more about Scandinavia than most, for both personal and professional reasons. A colleague of mine in the Greens remarked that the next Scottish Green manifesto should just be called ‘Scandinavian Nirvana’, such is the appetite in the party for increased welfare, greater social freedoms, gender equality and local democracy. I wholeheartedly agree.
Which brings me to something said by Blair McDougall in a BBC interview on the independence referendum. He accuses his opposite number in the Yes campaign, the significantly more articulate and less hackish Blair Jenkins, of wanting ‘57 per cent tax like in Norway’. There are indeed people in Norway paying that much tax, but these kind of people are not the salt of the earth working men and women which McDougall thinks will be crushed by the weight of Kaiser Salmond’s iron taxation, if he did indeed have such plans.
Then there was a report in The Economist which made the odd logical step of collating the radical reforms by centre-right governments in Sweden and formerly in Denmark with the high living standards and safe economies of the Nordic countries. As the Swedish journalist Katrin Kielos noted, there is an awful schizophrenia about the new craze for the Nordic centre-right, in that it assumes that being Scandinavian is a virtue in itself and argues that the path forward for these secure and durable systems is to follow a more British or American model . It is a trend which wishes to dine on the fruits of the Scandinavian countries’ labour whilst seeking to undermine it at its foundations.
The whole thing is illustrative of the fact that there is a huge amount of ignorance about the way in which Scandinavian society functions, and that this ignorance can be used to significant political advantage. It is also debatable to what extent it is even appropriate to address the Nordic countries as a single unit. There are however certain things which underpin ‘the Scandinavian model’ which Scotland would have to adopt were it to develop in such a direction.
The first is a strict ethos of universalism. Not all services are free in Sweden or its neighbours, but notable by its absence is the incredibly British notion of selective assistance. Britain seems to implicitly accept that there should be huge gaps in income between different levels of society, and that one of the roles of public welfare is to alleviate this. It is a mode of thinking which the New Labour project perfected with its targeted alleviation, support for bright pupils from state schools and university access bursaries, without ever tackling the structural causes of poverty and discrimination.
Secondly, the way in which Scandinavian trade unions work is different to the British model. The nostalgia for the 1970s which pervades much of Britain’s left ignores the fact that old British models of trade-unionism were what allowed public support for the radical reforms of the 1980s. The systems of collective bargaining employed in Sweden and relatively high levels of unionisation amongst what might be termed normal people means that it is both destigmatised and can claim to represent large portions of the population. This system has come under attack from centre-right governments in recent years but has survived relatively intact. The Scandinavian countries do not have a legal minimum wage, but they do have an effective minimum wage proportionally higher than Scotland, leading to a reduction in income inequality before the tax system has even played its redistributive role.
And once tax is collected, where does it go? Not into benefits as they might be normally understood, but rather into the provision of universal services. Childcare, incredibly well funded education systems, transport and infrastructure and healthcare. The biggest challenge to Scotland is whether it is possible to transfer to this type of system given the appalling disparity evident in the country and present. It is in the interests of every Scottish woman to vote for a scenario which will provide the funding and structures for them to work and live on the same terms as men (and from a male feminist perspective, in men’s interest too).
Now to return to Blair McDougall and his mythical 57 per cent tax rate, I would say that it would only become an issue when you earn as much money as a senior press adviser or an MP. Having large tax reserves means that in times of crisis governments are able to effectively deal with them, unlike the British model of medium taxation on an out of control financial system without any thought as to the after effects.
So to be realistic, adopting a Scandinavian social model would involve higher rates of tax, but it would also involve higher wages and better public services. In real terms incomes might well be higher, or at least remain static whilst providing for higher levels of public investment.
The whole thing is also dependent on a grand narrative. People vote for things because they believe in their viability, and the Scandinavian system is underpinned by a notion of functional redistribution different from the dominant discourse in Britain, and even in Scotland. It isn’t about smashing the rich or shooting bankers at dawn, but rather about building a cohesive society which works in the interest of all. As Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg says, “to create we must share, and to share we must create.”
David Leask’s excellent ‘As Others See Us’ column in the Herald, in which a group of Norwegians were asked for their opinion on independence, was revealing. The lack of interest in Scotland’s constitutional future was unsurprising – I frequently find myself explaining to Swedes the ins and outs of the independence movement – as Scotland is not politically visible. The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter recently published a feature on Europe’s contemporary independence movements which mentioned Scotland in the same breath as the Northern League in Italy and Flemish separatism in Belgium, entirely ignoring the broadly leftist motivations found in the majority of pro-independence groups and parties in Scotland. The challenge will be to explicitly build the construction of a sustainable and humane welfare state into the Scottish cultural narrative at home and abroad.
Neither would we or should we transform Scotland into Scandinavia overnight. When talking with a good friend of mine about how I hoped to live in a Scotland where I felt the state and society treated me and any potential wife/partner equally she smiled wryly and wished me good luck, with some justification. But that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try. I answered that to combine the best aspects of Scotland and Sweden would create something beautiful, but that it would require the type of radical social change not seen since the 1960s. It would be a national project which larger countries would be entirely incapable of, but which might just work in Scotland. Scandinavia might be a fluid concept with many faces, but the values which it ostensibly represents are what we should really be aiming for. Both financially and morally, we cannot afford not to.