By Alistair Davidson
I felt a growing sense of trepidation as I entered the Edinburgh University Old College, which hosted this week’s Nordic Horizons talk. Like so many of Scotland’s public buildings, its tremendous archways seem almost intended to confront the newcomer with their own insignificance.
This was quite different to the kind of townhall campaign meetings I’m used to, full of angry Glaswegians; instead it was a gathering of the sort of people who dress “smart casual” in the evenings. Later, fully half the room would reveal themselves to be members of political parties! I began to worry that I would look a bit daft, sitting in the stands in my Debenhams t-shirt.
I needn’t have - the atmosphere inside was relaxed, friendly and welcoming, in no small part thanks to Lesley Riddoch, our genial host. The first thing that struck me was how good the gender balance was, compared to other political lectures I’ve attended. The deliberate intent to involve women was reiterated by various speakers, and demonstrated by the majority-female platform.
The talk itself was a fascinating tour through Norwegian history and social democracy. Norway, like Scotland, is a small Northern European nation traditionally dominated by larger neighbours. Unlike Scotland, it has a high level of civic engagement - four out of every five Norwegians is a member of some form of organisation - and low rates of social exclusion and structural unemployment.
Over the two hours, Oivind Bratberg regaled us with tales of Norwegian social democracy based around the three pillars of strong trade unions, a comprehensive and universal welfare state, and market interventions that support private industry. This is a partnership approach, successful in several small countries, where social peace is secured through the incorporation of business, state and civil society into common structures.
The strength of the trade union movement and civil society more generally stood out for me as a source of social democracy. Again and again it was emphasised that mass grassroots mobilisations kept the people of Norway engaged in their society. It helps too that there is a state apparatus designed for engagement - Norway has over ten times as many municipalities as modern Scotland.
This level of social connectedness and organisation gives the average Norwegian far more power than the average Scot, and as a result Norway has escaped the worst ravages of neoliberalism. With either independence or a new devolution settlement seeming likely, it is important that we learn their lessons. It is all too easy to imagine a small Scottish state being bullied by multinational investors into ignoring the will of its own people.
As a community organiser for Power in Community, my own interest is in how we can empower Scotland’s marginalised people to make social change. Organising in Glasgow, I’ve seen the underconfidence and disengagement that comes from long-term unemployment or a lifetime spent working poor, with no savings to show for decades of effort.
The decline of manufacturing in this city robbed us of more than just jobs; it stole our solidarity, our connectedness, and the power that they bring. The Scots who need change most rarely believe that change is possible.
Nordic Horizons is a fascinating project to remake Scotland in a Scandinavian image; for this is to happen, we will need to find new ways to reach out to and engage the forgotten people of Scotland’s estates, schemes and new towns.