Welfairy Tales to believe

Do Scots have a ‘Nordic outlook’? Is the gap between our welfare systems bridgeable? Can Scots grab ‘low hanging fruit’ without wholesale conversion to the Nordic high wage, high tax and highly trusting way of life?

Traditionally Scots have looked west to Quebec or Ireland or south to the quasi-independent territories of Spain. Maybe, it’s time to look east to the world’s most successful democracies which just happen to be our nearest neighbours – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and even former ‘basket-case’ Iceland. Could the much discussed but little defined ‘Nordic Model’ serve as a new social and economic template – whether Scotland votes to become Europe’s newest independent state or remains Britain’s most highly devolved national region?

There are no straight answers so it’s easier for Nordic experts to speak for themselves and Scots to make their minds up. And that’s where Nordic Horizons comes in. Formed after a chance meeting with fellow Nordophile Dan Wynn three years ago, this voluntary-run, virtual think-tank has held 16 events in the Scottish parliament with speakers on subjects ranging from Norway’s outdoor kindergarten to Swedish recycling, Danish welfare, Finnish education and the Icelandic ‘crowd-sourced’ constitution. Having contacted all the speakers, chaired most meetings and spent time with each visitor I’ve been struck by one thing. Not one speaker from any country has ever asked for a fee, upmarket hotel or first class travel. Every single one has made an attempt to relate their experience to Scotland – indeed Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg amazed everyone by producing a new powerpoint he’d worked on overnight to include comparative statistics on Scottish education. And then stunned parliamentary staff by plugging his European two-pin MacBook plug into a Scottish socket by skilfully inserting a biro into the missing third pin. Intellectual, practical and cheerfully rule-bending. Generous with their time, easy going, trusting, interested and at all times relentlessly positive – the proof of the Nordic success story is most easily demonstrated by the outlook of their people.

“Swedish people worry they might not get into a council nursing home. That’s how popular they are. We regard kindergarten spending as an investment in the future of society and the workforce.”

The second dawning realisation has been that each Nordic policy success depends on previous policy building blocks Nordic experts almost take for granted.

Part of the Finnish success in education, for example, rests upon state-subsidised kindergarten which offers high quality childcare (at a maximum of about £200 per month per child full time) between the ages of one and six or seven. So by the time they reach school, Nordic kids have already learned the soft skills of problem solving, communication, sharing and teamwork and only then hit the ground running with an academic syllabus. Starting school later they tend not to change schools at the age of 11 and stay together until 15 when children are finally streamed for two final years into academic and vocational higher schools. All teachers in Finland, including primary teachers, have Masters degrees and chose to impose that requirement upon themselves. In exchange, teachers are allowed to decide how to run schools themselves with virtually no external examination.

In the totally different field of energy, recycling, district energy and strong ultra-local municipalities are mutually reinforcing – as we discovered from Kim Olsson the young, genial and sharply dressed boss of Europe’s largest rubbish dump at Helsingborg in Sweden. Not that Kim sees his resource base as rubbish; “When I open a bin, I see resources.” It’s evident this is not ‘project speak’ as it often is in Scotland. Sweden recycles almost everything and has long since banned organic waste entering landfill. They make biogas and bio fertiliser, delivering it by pipes to surrounding fields. This, Kim told me, allows the cycle of life to be completed as food comes from the land into cities and then back onto the land again. Rubbish is also valuable – the 20 per cent of Swedish waste that can’t be recycled is burned in urban incinerators which supply hot water to local households in council-run district heating schemes. Ironically, that does mean Swedes need rubbish from other countries – and whilst Kim admits Sweden may need to rethink that dependency, he has all the statistics about the more damaging emissions that result from methane leaving our overflowing landfill sites.

Norwegian international relations expert Professor Iver Neuman came to speak at a controversial time for Scots – just after the NATO debate at the SNP conference. But he spent less time talking about Norway’s NATO membership and more outlining how all the small Nordic states conduct foreign policy, in or out of NATO – learning to negotiate not grand-stand as a matter of enlightened self-interest because small nations don’t have the reserves to recover from foreign policy mistakes . Another international event about Norwegian policy on the High North was remarkable for its funding. The Norwegian Consulate not only financed the trip of Rune Rafaelsen from the Barents Secretariat but also cheerfully funded a 10 hour trip from Murmansk for a spokesperson from Bellona – Norway’s chief critic and the Nordic equivalent of Greenpeace.

One of the most memorable events delivered not just one but three young Norwegian historians – Oivind Bratberg runs the British Politics Society at Oslo University and delivered an overview of Norway’s success story, heckled in a splendidly Scottish way by his two fellow academics Dag Einar Thorsen and Nik Brandal. Oivind stressed how Norway’s success arose from the changes that followed virtual home rule in 1814 when one of the world’s most liberal constitutions was adopted in the wake of separation from the Danish state. It enfranchised 40 per cent of adult men virtually overnight by giving all landowners the vote. Of course, this democratic achievement also arose from a prior reality – ordinary Norwegians have tended to own small pockets of land for centuries. According to another Norwegian speaker Professor Ottar Brox the Scots were brutally treated in urban and industrial settings because as tenants not owners of land they had nowhere to go back to. Life in the country in Norway was often extremely tough – but it was always an alternative to slave labour in factories. An option landless Scots never had.

Plucky little Iceland has always punched well above its weight – the island has just 300,000 inhabitants and there have never been more than a million Icelanders throughout all history.

Professor Thorvaldur Gylfason – the highest-ranked member of the Icelandic Constitutional Council – had a profound impact on the Scottish independence debate on his first visit, outlining plans for a six question referendum on the ‘crowd-sourced’ constitution at the same time Scots were being told a two question referendum was too complicated for them.

Thorvaldur related an eminently sensible civic process of nomination and online election, possible in a nation with high levels of belief in citizen capacity, low levels of faith in party politics and widespread use of the internet.

By his second visit in 2013 it became clear the document written over a period of four months would fail to reach the statute books – partly because of the ‘low’ 67 per cent turnout at the referendum (still higher than any recent Scottish elections). Iceland had clawed its way back to BBB+ credit rating and a projected 2.3 per cent growth rate after letting ‘bad banks’ go to the wall (in contrast to the UK and Ireland) and perhaps felt confident/cocky enough to swing against further modernisation, against joining the EU and back towards splendid isolation. Having shared the heady optimism of Thorvaldur’s early ‘crowd-sourced’ days, it was disappointing to see this bold extra-parliamentary effort fail, perversely encouraging to find some ambitious Nordic projects actually fail and interesting to hear the verdict of fellow Icelander and financial journalist Sigrun Davidsdottir that Iceland is in many ways the most Americanised and the least Nordic of the Nordics.

Scotland’s fast becoming a European hub for the production of large-scale renewable energy using the same template that guided the oil and gas industries; ‘Big is Beautiful’.

Danish Soren Hermansen – one of Time Life’s Heroes of the Environment 2008 – outlined Denmark’s very different community-based, local energy approach. In 1997 his small, tight-knit, conservative, farming island of Samsoe, nestled in the Kattegat Strait, won a contest sponsored by the Danish Government to become Denmark’s showcase for sustainable power, going carbon-free without any state funding, tax breaks or technical expertise.

In the 1990s almost all Samsoe’s power came from oil and coal and the island’s 4,300 residents didn’t know a wind turbine from a grain silo. Soren Hermansen, though, saw an opportunity. Today Samso isn’t just carbon-neutral — it produces 10 per cent more clean electricity than it uses, and feeds extra power back into the grid at a profit. There’s no quick fix – just very patient communication, good local knowledge and – above all else – a tradition of powerful small municipalities instead of the massive, distant mega-councils of Scotland.

Architect Søren Arildskov Rasmussen had a similar tale to tell about the transformation of Copenhagen into one of the world’s top cycling cities. 30 years ago cycling rates in the Danish capital were almost as low as they are in Scotland today. Then the oil crisis of 1974 took place and Danish politicians reacted in the aftermath. As a country with no oil, gas or fossil fuel reserves, they decided to keep petrol and car prices high and go green to save the Danish balance of trade as much as the planet.

Today the Danish capital is held up as a near ideal cycling system – 36 per cent of all journeys were made by bike in 2007 and 57 per cent of cyclists feel safe and secure in traffic. The city’s Ecometropolis campaign aims to raise those high levels further – to make Copenhagen the world’s greenest capital

How did they get there? Well it has helped to have a century of the horse-trading and compromise that comes with proportional representation. It helps to have the Nordic tradition of powerful, quasi-sovereign local government. It helps to have ‘flat’ management styles, one of the lowest income gaps between management and shop floor workers, a ‘social contract’ between state and citizens and employers and workers and high levels of employee workplace involvement cannot be sniffed at either. All these civic building blocks have helped to generate the highest levels of trust in the world. Mind you, that could easily have led Danes to get complacent, sit on their laurels, quote statistics and eat bacon. Not a bit of it.

Just before the target-ducking Copenhagen summit in 2009, the city took a cross-party decision to announce its ambitious carbon neutral goal and drew up plans to get there with detailed, online, publicly available annual ‘green accounts’ and targets across eight policy areas involving all the business, civic groups and public bodies in the field.

Consensus building is time-consuming and painstaking – but there’s really no better substitute.

Prof Jon Kvist gave an account of the Nordic ‘welfairytale’ – characterising welfare as a way to redistribute income across the lifetime of each individual as well as between people. For Danes the welfare state operates like a cushion for difficult times or perhaps like a personal bank – to make deposits and withdrawals through the different stages of a lifetime. Jon described the social investment policies of the Nordic countries as “Policies that not only mitigate social ills but also prevent deep social cleavages. Policies anchored locally in politics, practice and the economy .”

Marta Szebehely – professor of Social Work at Stockholm University – took that idea further. She explained that the ‘People’s Home’ (Folkhemmet) ideal which was developed in the 1930s — held that only the highest standards are good enough for the people. Excellent public services are designed to remove the build-up of demand from the rich for separate, private facilities – and this has worked in a society with relatively high taxes, low income differentials and equal income. The worry in Sweden today is that cuts will create underfunded Old Folk’s Homes and those council services will lose the middle class – and their support for high quality public services. Indeed cutbacks mean every fourth nursing home place has disappeared in the last 12 years.

“Swedish people worry they might not get into a council nursing home. That’s how popular they are. We regard kindergarten spending as an investment in the future of society and the workforce. We could regard elderly spending the same way because it allows children (especially women) to keep working. No decent formal elder care means women can’t work.”

All of this has huge relevance for Scotland where care homes have a poor reputation and the Scottish Parliament is debating how to care for rising numbers of elderly people and cut costs.

So in summary, the many formal talks and informal chats with Nordic speakers make a few things crystal clear. Nordic governments benefit from having the highest levels of trust in the world. Trust between people and trust between people and politicians. The Nordic nations have the highest levels of child happiness, and fit, healthy, forward-thinking and relatively gripe-free people. They are characterised by relatively tiny but powerful municipal councils; high income tax to equalise opportunity with comparatively low business taxes; ‘flat’ organisational structures with little hierarchy; social contracts where unions are involved in everyday management decisions; relatively cheap land prices, strong connections with nature and weekends spent in wooden cottages not shopping malls; greater gender equality, high levels of investment in R&D and human capital, almost no private education and universal, affordable kindergarten with a school-starting age of six/seven not three/four.

Currently Scotland can tick only a couple of these boxes – but then that’s precisely why comparison with the high-achieving little nations of the north could be so transformational