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Local Democracy

Small nation culture

I've been thinking we should have more debate between meetings of the Nordic Horizons group. (for more info see www.nordichorizons.org ) And maybe your responses can help us get the best focus for meetings currently being planned – and one is being planned about small nations culture. So here are some thoughts about the cultures of small northern Nordic nations– are they suffocatingly couthy or devastatingly dynamic?

Every nation constructs an identity and Scotland and Norway are no exceptions.

120111_1111_Smallnation1But for a Scot who has become used to seeing the distinctive culture of Scotland tucked away in corners as "alternative" or "traditional" it's been moving and massively thought-provoking to visit Norway and see the collective life experience of Norwegians take centre stage in their most prestigious places.

We have Scottish art often sidelined to a basement of our "national gallery " on the Mound with large swathes of space given over to Dutch, Italian and other masters whereas the Norwegian national gallery is filled almost entirely with epic, massive, romantic and realistic portraits of Norwegian life and landscape from the nation building period at the end of the 19th century to the present day. Or take the Lewis Chessmen – stuck in the British museum in a wee room. The museum at Tromso made me realise that the UK still gives primacy of place to objects stolen during the colonial era. Countries like Norway without colonies have the space to tell their OWN story. and the Tromso museum blew me away with the way it used one single tiny exhibit — a piece of tree bark with the teeth marks of a stone age child — as the focus for a huge exhibition about the amber trade and the ways of life for Norwegian people living in the fjords and forests back then. I know in a wider sense some critics like the fabulously feisty Nina Witozek think Norway is sport, ski-ing and outdoors obsessed. Maybe so — but it's not a bad set of obsessions is it? And I don't really agree with Nine when she says Norway's urban culture is lacking because Norwegians regard urban life as inauthentic. Oslo works as a city far better than Glasgow.

It may Oslo doesn't have the chaos and colour of Celtic cities like Glasgow and Dublin or the stone built grandeur of Edinburgh. But Edinburgh wasn't partly destroyed during the war, the smaller cities of Oslo are as vibrant as out small cities and so much of the colour and outspokenness of Scottish culture is a product of our enduring tolerance of poverty and inequality. There's a great bit in the film My Left Foot which tells the story of disabled painter Christy Brown. He was suicidal after a rejection. So his mother went into their tiny back yard and got on her hands and knees with a spade to start building a room for him (he had been sharing a room in their shack of a house with three brothers). It was an incredibly moving scene that demonstrates how much people have had to care for one other in Celtic society and when I watched it in Sweden with writers from Norway, Finland and Sweden — they all felt a loss. They felt their societies were smug and self sufficient and inward facing and that such warm human gestures had become unnecessary. I can see that argument – that the Nordics have a culture where the state does too much it squeezes out the human factor. But if that means old people don't die of hyperthermia in winter, then frankly I'd be quite happy to lose quite a lot of what is currently characterised as the couthy warmth of Celtic craic. Maybe our connected, chatty and rich shared traditional culture is partly a product of being ignored by the British state and having had to endure unfairness for so long.

There's another argument though – any capitalist society is based upon the joint mutual action of state, private sector and civic society. The Nordics have actually a far more structured and well supported civic society than us – co-ops run huge hotels and whole ferry companies in Finland. Most flats in Oslo are run by co-ops too. Here "alternatives" to big business and multi-nationals are usually wobbly well-meaning ventures supported by the idealistic few. There successful multi-nationals like Nokia, Kone, IKEA etc sit beside successful co-operative ventures and successful state ventures like Statoil. Strikes me this mix is healthy. To me small versus large countries is a false divide — culturally and economically. The economic crisis has shown America to be as vulnerable as Iceland — and as good/bad at digging itself out of the same hole. But confidence is the key. Confident small countries make a huge contribution to the culture of the world — they provide vital diversity — they act as a control on the dangerous experiments politicians conduct on bigger economies. Vive la difference and vive confidence!

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