Category Archives: culture

Why I’ll be voting Yes on Thursday

Although I’ve written hundreds of blog posts over the past couple of years, I’ve never described my personal journey to Yes. With just a few days to go before the referendum, here it is.

Getting to know Scotland

When I moved to Scotland from Denmark in 2002, I hadn’t thought much about Scottish independence, but I was broadly in favour of it. It would be hard not to when you come from a successful independent country the same size as Scotland.

Yes Scotland's first annual Independence rally
Yes Scotland’s first annual Independence rally, a photo by PhylB on Flickr.
However, at first I wasn’t really aware of the differences between Scotland and the other UK nations. I think I thought the differences were mainly cultural and linguistic, but I gradually started to notice the differences were much more fundamental than that, that Scotland really isn’t just another region of Britain (something which most English people never seem to have realised).

Indeed, surprisingly to foreigners, most Scots seem to consider Scotland to be a country within a political union called the UK. Sometimes believed to be too wee, too poor and too stupid to be independent, perhaps, but a country nonetheless. This is very different from how the UK is seen abroad. In most languages, ‘Britain’, ‘the UK’ and ‘England’ are used with exactly the same meaning. For instance, I have often received letters from Denmark addressed to ‘…, Glasgow, Scotland, England’.

The reason that it took me a long time to work out that Scotland wasn’t just a region wasn’t helped by the media. At first I watched BBC News, Channel 4 News and all that, and it took me some time to realise that half the news stories they were reporting weren’t relevant to Scotland. (Thank goodness I picked The Scotsman as my daily newspaper — I could just as easily have gone for The Independent!) The lack of devolution of the media is bizarre — it should have been a very easy thing to devolve.

However, once you start to realise that Scotland is indeed a country, a lot of things fall into place. You also start noticing how the native culture of Scotland is considered inferior by many people. For instance, although I had learnt some Gaelic before moving to Scotland, I only really started learning Scots after I moved here. It was very difficult, however, because most people will look at you like you’ve got three heads when you speak Scots with a foreign accent. It’s such a strange situation — a language that is spoken by almost half of the population but that people treat as an embarrassing dialect. The language of Dunbar and Burns, for crying out loud! It should be celebrated and be an obligatory subject in all schools as far as I’m concerned!

A political journey

During my first few years in Scotland, very little seemed to happen on the independence front. The SNP wasn’t getting close to power, and I started to think there would never be a majority in favour of independence in the Scottish Parliament (those were the days before Salmond returned to Holyrood), and so I gradually started thinking that perhaps a more realistic solution would be a reformed UK — a written constitution, proportional representation in Westminster, proper federalism, an elected House of Lords. I even joined the Liberal Democrats, thinking they had the determination to reform the broken union.

However, I rapidly grew disillusioned with the LibDems. I think it started when they refused even to sit down with the SNP in 2007 to explore whether a coalition could be formed. It started dawning on me that their commitment to federalism was just skin-deep, and that their real instincts were pro-Union and pro-Empire.

When the LibDems entered government with the Tories, I was initially hopeful that they would manage to get some meaningful reforms out of it. However, they repeatedly got outsmarted by the Conservatives. The introduction of tuition fees was of course a huge betrayal, but from a Scottish perspective it was even worse that they failed to introduce the AV system and to reform the House of Lords. Clearly the voting system referendum should have been about proportional representation (and not AV) if the Tories were going to be campaigning against it — AV should only have been accepted if the Tories committed themselves to campaigning in its favour.

More importantly, if the UK political system couldn’t even implement such a minor reform, what hope was there of ever enacting the far bolder reforms that I considered necessary?

These political events (on top of the Iraq war and the numerous other scandals that New Labour presided over) convinced me that the UK was a failed state that couldn’t be reformed. Many political parties seem quite idealistic when they’re far from power, but as soon as they get involved with the civil servants, they become part of the establishment machine and become carbon clones of the previous government.

In the meantime, the SNP had demonstrated that they could do things differently at Holyrood, and as a result they gained an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, which then made an independence referendum an inevitability. I finally realised that I was a member of the wrong party, and I joined the SNP.

A different journey

At the same time I had been pursuing a career at a large publishing house in Bishopbriggs. Every other year, a redundancy round would move more of the best-paid jobs down to London, and I realised that you can only progress so far in your career in Scotland — at some point, you need to spend some years — or even the rest of your career — in London.

This might seem obvious to Scots, but to a Dane like me it was hugely shocking. Unless you want to be CEO of a multinational company, Danes expect they can have fulfilling and rewarding careers without leaving Denmark. If people do move abroad for work reasons, there’s not a single destination that dominates — Brussels, London, Berlin, New York, Oslo and Zürich are all equally likely.

I also fell in love with one of my colleagues, and one thing led to another. With five children in the house, I now see the educational aspect of devolution, too. Because they’re at Scottish schools, you can’t easily move to England for a couple of years, and you worry whether they can have a good career here. You also notice that the school holidays here aren’t in sync with the BBC’s school holiday programming and with the back-to-school products in supermarkets. The separate school system is making it hard to move to England and back, but you need to do that for your career. In this regard, the current system gives us the worst of both worlds.

Reforming the UK

If it was likely that the UK would be fundamentally reformed soon, my natural instinct would be to give it a chance. However, given that very few meaningful reforms have happened after more than a decade of Labour governments followed by a coalition government that includes the Liberal Democrats, I cannot see where the willingness to reform the UK will come from.

The main political parties in Westminster don’t seriously want to overhaul the system (because it’s working exceptionally well for the Westminster and City of London elites), and there’s not even a party that can carry the beacon of hope (in the way the LibDems did before 2010). The only untested party that has a chance of gaining power within the next decade is UKIP, and that will most certainly be a change for the worse!

If we have a choice between being part of a failed state or a new, potentially very successful one, the choice is easy.

Some people have suggested that the main diving line between people voting Yes and No is whether they feel Scottish or British. This national identity question is not what makes me a Yes. I don’t feel British in the slightest — I would probably describe myself as a Danish-Swabian-Scottish European, but I’m not against unions per se.

If somebody suggested creating a single country out Denmark, Norway and Sweden, I would look carefully at the proposal. If the new Scandinavian Union could achieve things that the existing countries couldn’t do themselves, and if all three countries were going to get a fair share of political power, I might be in favour. If, on the other hand, the Union simply meant putting Stockholm in charge of Denmark and Norway too, making Swedish the official language in all three countries, and the main benefit of the Union was to give the Swedish generals a bigger army to wage wars with, I would most definitely be against it.

The same applies to the UK. I haven’t found any area where we’re better together inside the UK. Externally, the UK might be stronger than its constituent parts when the country tries to punch above its weight in the UN and on the world stage generally, but unfortunately the result is not anything that furthers peace, democracy and the rule of law elsewhere on the planet, and what’s the point then?

Scotland can lead the way

Then what? Nordic Horizons!
It’s also very clear that Scotland and the majority of the rUK have very different visions for the future. An independent Scotland would want to retain and improve the welfare state (the Common Weal), whereas the rUK (led by London) is on its way to becoming a terribly unequal global city state. I believe Scotland could even inspire the other Nordic countries, where a certain degree of welfare state apathy has set in, but where Scotland’s experiences with living under Thatcher and Cameron will galvanise the resolve to do better.

What I want

I want to live in a rich, egalitarian country. Where my children can have a decent career without moving away. Where a welfare state provides healthcare and education for everybody. Where people get a hand when they’re down instead of being kicked further down. Where important rights are guaranteed by a constitution. Where immigrants are welcomed because most families consist of immigrants and emigrants. Where people are focusing on building the best small country in the world, not feeling disempowered and disenfranchised. Where nobility has been abolished, and ideally where the monarchy has been voted out too. A country that is growing at a normal speed, rather than seeing all other countries overtake it. A country that is a happy EU member state, not suffering from the Little Englander syndrome. A politically normal country, where people discuss the economy and foreign policy, not independence all the time.

The choice is simple. It has to be Yes.

(I haven’t mentioned the currency of Scotland, the transition costs or anything like this, because those aren’t reasons to vote Yes or No to independence — they’re purely practical problems to be resolved.)

The weakening of the Scottish institutions

Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Prime Minister Gordon Brown by Downing Street, on Flickr.
It might come as something of a shock to people who know me, but for once I agree with Gordon Brown (in his recent article in The Guardian):

It is also a mistake to think what’s new is Scotland demanding its own national institutions and the freedom to run them. From its churches and law to its schools, universities and hospitals, Scotland has had its own distinctive national institutions throughout all those 300 years of union. […]

Perhaps surprisingly, what is also new is the recent loss of a million members from Scotland’s churches and the weakening of the Scottish institutions – religious, legal, educational and even sporting – which expressed our Scottishness. They provided an anchor that made us comfortable with being part of Britain. The delicate balance between cultural nationalism and political unionism has been ruptured […]

I think this analysis is spot on. For centuries, Scotland effectively had cultural autonomy within a political, economic and monetary union called the British Empire. Because of this autonomy, and because almost no Scots spoke English as their native language until recently (Scots and Gaelic dominated for a long time as spoken languages, and English was only used in schools and churches and some other formal settings), their was no threat to Scottishness at all.

However, these days it’s getting harder and harder to define what it means to be Scottish. The TV programmes young people watch the most are British (X Factor, Big Brother, The Apprentice, Britain’s Got Talent and so on), the churches are dying out, and Scots increasingly speak standard English with a slight accent — and even that is dying out (my kids are struggling with pronouncing the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ and the ‘w’ in ‘whale’). Gordon Brown even created a UK-wide football team for the Olympics.

I’m surprised how Gordon Brown can see these issues so clearly and yet fail to provide any solutions for them. His article doesn’t suggest any concrete measures — he doesn’t suggest splitting up the BBC into four national broadcasters, he doesn’t think the UK should field four separate Olympic teams, he doesn’t draw up a plan for revitalising Scots and Gaelic.

Because Unionists don’t seem to want to do anything to create new distinctive Scottish institutions to repair the “delicate balance between cultural nationalism and political unionism”, I cannot help but conclude that they’re happy to see Scotland merging gradually with England until eventually it becomes just another British region like Yorkshire or Devon.

I agree with Gordon Brown’s analysis, and so far as I can see, the only practical solution to the problems he raises is independence. Surely he can see that too?

Eurovision, the Olympics, the UN and all that

Finland for Eurovision 2006
Finland for Eurovision 2006 by Michael, on Flickr.
The BBC has reported that an independent analysis compiled by former Labour first minister Henry McLeish ‘concluded that there were “no obvious barriers” to Scotland competing at the Games in the Rio Olympics’ in the summer of 2016. The obligatory bit of scaremongering was provided by the Vice President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Sir Craig Reedie:

He said an independent Scotland would first need to gain membership of the United Nations.


Responding to the report Sir Craig said: “I really don’t know how long it takes an independent nation to get membership.

“Gaining membership of the United Nations, historically and politically, is not always an easy thing but there must be a process and it must take some time.”

UN membership is important in many contexts — as discussed previously, it is for instance also a requirement for participating in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Anyway, you would have thought that the BBC would have had the resources to check Wikipedia for details about the time it takes to gain membership of the UN rather than just reporting Sir Craig’s vacillations. However, this is easily remedied.

Let’s have a look at two recent cases:

  • The dissolution of Czechoslovakia: On 17 July 1992, the Slovak parliament adopted the Declaration of independence of the Slovak nation. On 25 November, the dissolution of Czechoslovakia as of 31 December 1992 was agreed. In a letter dated 10 December 1992, the Secretary-General of the UN was informed that the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic would cease to exist on 31 December 1992. The Czech Republic and Slovakia were admitted to the UN on 19 January 1993.
  • Montenegro: The status of the union between Montenegro and Serbia was decided by the referendum on Montenegrin independence on 21 May 2006. On 3 June 2006, the Montenegrin Parliament declared the independence of Montenegro. Montenegro was admitted to the UN on 28 June 2006.

This shows that when the independence declaration is not contested, it normally takes the UN about a month to process the paperwork. In other words, if Scotland becomes independent on 24 March 2016 (as suggested by the Scottish Government), Scotland should become a member of the United Nations by May 2016. (Of course things look very different if the independence declaration isn’t accepted by the parent country — Kosovo springs to mind — but the Edinburgh Agreement commits Westminster to accept the result of the referendum, so this shouldn’t become a problem for Scotland.)

May 2016 will probably be too late to allow Scotland to compete in Eurovision that year, but it should make participation in the Summer Olympics quite feasible, as concluded by Henry McLeish.

New word needed: Englandic

Two Flags (2012), by Miss GG
Two Flags (2012), by Miss GG by Katy Stoddard, on Flickr.

Andrew Lilico has written a piece on Conservative Home about his confused sense of identity and about his independence angst:

I am a Scots Briton from New Zealand. […] When I came to live in Britain as a boy, I was not eligible for a British passport (though I have one now), as my family had been in New Zealand for many generations, but there was no doubt that I was British and that this was the Mother Country. […]

I was raised in Chester, near Wales not Scotland, but as a Scots Briton from New Zealand that seemed no less natural a way to “return to the Mother Country” than living anywhere else in Britain. I have never thought of myself as “English”. To me “English” has always been a racial designation, and the English a tribe […]

If Scotland were to become independent, who would I be? […] As a Scots Briton born in New Zealand who happens to live in England-and-Wales (Northern Ireland would presumably depart to join Scotland in due course), why would I think of myself as English, then, any more than, say, European?

Mr Lilico seems to be using ‘English’ and ‘Scottish’ as ethnic labels, in the same way as Americans use European ethnonyms to describe their ancestry even if they haven’t left the US for generations. In other words, ‘British’ is used to denote the citizenship, and this can then be further qualified (e.g., ‘Scots British’, ‘English British’, ‘Asian British’ or ‘Black British’). I presume he would not approve of somebody describing themselves as ‘Italian Scottish’ or ‘Pakistani Scottish’.

However, this is not how ‘Scottish’ is used in Scotland today. For instance, Ruth Wishart recently defined a Scot as follows:

A Scot is someone born here, and anyone who has paid us the compliment of settling here.

In other words, ‘Scottish’ is now used in Scotland in a similar way to how ‘British’ is used in England (or at least in London), and people do indeed happily describe themselves as ‘Italian Scottish’ or ‘Pakistani Scottish’.

(My beloved wife has a theory that the definition of ‘Scottish’ changed with the influx of the West Coast Italians after World War I, because so many Glaswegians spent their holidays there, and this made them become part of the Scottish family.)

The distinction many people from England make between ‘British’ and ‘English’ reminds me of the distinction in Russian between российский and русский (both normally glossed as “Russian”). The word “российский” rossíjskij means belonging to Russia, as a citizen or resident regardless of ethnicity, while the word “русский” rússkij describes ethnic East Slavic Russians only, but not other ethnic groups in Russia.

I wonder what England will do once Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all left the UK (as I’m sure will happen once Scotland has taken the first step). Will they still call their country (South) Britain to allow themselves to preserve the distinction between ‘British’ and ‘English’? Or will they need to coin a new word to cover a citizen of England who isn’t ethnically English (e.g., ‘Englandic’)?

I don’t think anybody in Scotland feels a great need to introduce the word ‘Scotlandic’ to express this difference. Scotland has always been a country of emigrants and immigrants — a multilingual, multiethnic and multireligious place. A Scot is indeed someone born here, and anyone who has paid us the compliment of settling here.

Addendum (12/04/14): Some rather interesting maps have been published by BBC News, which I think confirm what I wrote here.

The Eurovision Song Contest, Kosovo and Scotland

Eurovision Song Contest 2011
Eurovision Song Contest 2011, a photo by ianxn on Flickr.
Today’s scare story (do they coordinate them to ensure there’s at least one every day, I wonder?) comes from the Daily Mail:

But now Alex Salmond faces perhaps the biggest threat his dream of Scottish statehood.

For the country’s first minister has now been warned that, if it opts for secession, Scotland might not be allowed to enter the Eurovision Song Contest.


The annual song contest is run by the European Broadcasting Union, and a spokesman said it would require the Scottish broadcaster to re-apply for entry once it leaves the Royaume Uni, as our country is known at Eurovision.

Application involves a complicated list of criteria they would have to meet – and Scotland would not be guaranteed admittance.

Kosovo is not able to enter the song contest, in part because of the opposition of Serbia, the country it seceded from six years ago.

Let’s have a look at Kosovo and Eurovision. Fortunately, The Eurovision Times has written an FAQ on this topic:

After Kosovo’s independence in 2008, the national broadcaster Radio Televizioni i Kosovës (RTK) applied for membership in the EBU (European Broadcasting Union). Membership of the national broadcaster in the EBU is the prerequesite for a Eurovision participation. However, in order to become a member of the EBU, the broadcaster first needs to be a member of the International Telecomunications Union (ITU). And there we have the problem: In order to become a member of the ITU, the country needs to be a member of the United Nations. As Kosovo is still not recognised as an independent country by many countries, for instance Russia, Serbia and Spain, it is not a member of the UN.

It sounds extremely unlikely that Scotland wouldn’t be accepted as a new member by the UN, given that independence will have been won through a democratic process agreed with the UK.

Kosovo’s problems seem to have been caused by the fact that new member applications can be blocked by the permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, the UK, France, Russia and China), and Russia have decided to block Kosovo’s application (because they’re friendly with Serbia).

It’s thus actually irrelevant whether Spain would be happy with Scottish independence or not (and they have said repeatedly they don’t have a problem with it so long as independence has been achieved through constitutional means). It also seems very unlikely any of the permanent members of the UNSC would want to cause any problems.

In short, it’s practically certain that Scotland will quickly become a member first of the UN, then of the ITU and finally of the EBU, after which Scotland will be free to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Scandinavia isn’t perfect

DSCN6161, a photo by Hunter-Desportes on Flickr.
In the past couple of days, Denmark seems to have got (in-)famous for slaughtering a giraffe in public and feeding it to the lions, but until recently, many people seemed to think that Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries were some sort of paradise on Earth, which is probably why the criticism of Scandinavia published in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago attracted so much attention.

As a Danish emigrant, I’ve never thought of it as perfect, and I do agree with many of the points raised in the article. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn many useful lessons — we just need to be selective about what to copy and remember that sometimes we should be teaching them instead.

Anyway, I thought it’d be useful to address some of the points raised in more detail, so here goes:

Why do the Danes score so highly on international happiness surveys? Well, they do have high levels of trust and social cohesion, and do very nicely from industrial pork products, but according to the OECD they also work fewer hours per year than most of the rest of the world. As a result, productivity is worryingly sluggish. How can they afford all those expensively foraged meals and hand-knitted woollens? Simple, the Danes also have the highest level of private debt in the world (four times as much as the Italians, to put it into context; enough to warrant a warning from the IMF), while more than half of them admit to using the black market to obtain goods and services.

This is rather misleading. Yes, Danes have a lot of debt, but they have lots of assets, too, so if you look a net debt I don’t believe Denmark is worse than many other places. And of course moonlighting exists, but I don’t think it’s particularly widespread there. I’m also curious why using the black market would make you unhappy (unless you get caught, of course).

The real reason Danes top happiness surveys might have more to do with how to express the word “happy” in Danish (link in Danish), and the fact that Danes don’t like to admit they’re unhappy.

Perhaps the Danes’ dirtiest secret is that, according to a 2012 report from the Worldwide Fund for Nature, they have the fourth largest per capita ecological footprint in the world. Even ahead of the US. Those offshore windmills may look impressive as you land at Kastrup, but Denmark is the EU’s largest exporter of oil, and it still burns an awful lot of coal. Worth bearing that in mind the next time a Dane wags her finger at your patio heater.

This is not even mentioning the widespread use of wood-burning stoves in Denmark. 🙂

It’s certainly true that Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries are no saints when it comes to energy, but it’s a very mixed picture.

Denmark for instance taxes cars to a ludicrous degree (close to 200% on top of the cost of the car), which on the one hand means a lot of people use bikes or public transport instead of cars, but on the other hand it means a large number of the Danish cars are extremely old and would have been scrapped years ago in other countries. My dear wife once remarked about Copenhagen that although there was almost no traffic compared to a similar-sized city such as Glasgow, the air actually smelled worse.

A more positive example is the way Denmark uses the heat generated from crematoriums and from incinerating rubbish to heat houses.

I think energy and pollution is one of those areas where we can learn many lessons from the Scandinavian countries, but they can possibly learn more from us!

I’m afraid I have to set you straight on Danish television too. Their big new drama series, Arvingerne (The Legacy, when it comes to BBC4 later this year) is stunning, but the reality of prime-time Danish TV is day-to-day, wall-to-wall reruns of 15-year-old episodes of Midsomer Murders and documentaries on pig welfare.

I agree, Danish TV is generally dreadful. It’s Danish film-making that is wonderful. I guess it’s not a bad idea to invest what money you have in producing a few world-class films and TV series, rather than spreading the money out evenly.

The Danes of course also have highest taxes in the world (though only the sixth-highest wages – hence the debt, I guess). As a spokesperson I interviewed at the Danish centre-right thinktank Cepos put it, they effectively work until Thursday lunchtime for the state’s coffers, and the other day and half for themselves.

Although Danes on paper have very high taxes, I believe this is just a ploy to scare away potential immigrants. The official tax rates published include council taxes, national insurance and church levies, and most Danes have sizeable deductions that reduce their taxable income dramatically (for instance you get tax relief for mortgage payments and for commuting to work).

Once you taken all of the above into account, my guess is the typical Dane pays a wee bit more in tax that the typical Scot, but if you deduct the the high welfare payments (subsidised nurseries, generous unemployment benefit and all that) and you also remember that ordinary Danes typically have much higher incomes than their Scottish peers, I reckon most Danes are much better off.

As an example of the higher salaries in Denmark, apparently a check-out operator in the UK makes £9,262 a year but according to Ekstra Bladet, the average salary for this job in Denmark is £25,813 a year. Danish taxes would have to be insanely high to remove all of that difference!

The Cepos people he has been talking to are part of the right-wing think-tanks that are hell-bent on dismantling the Danish welfare state and turning it into a country Thatcher would have been proud of. It’s very sad that many Danes today don’t appreciate the wonderful system they’ve built up. I hope that seeing an independent Scotland building exactly this kind of welfare state might make them realise how unique the system is before it gets lost.

According to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment rankings (Pisa), Denmark’s schools lag behind even the UK’s.

It’s Finland’s schools that have been highly praised for years, not Denmark’s. In my experience, Danish primary schools aren’t great — I was bored out of my skull for most of the nine years. They aren’t bad when it comes to teaching modern languages, though, and that’s not included in the headline Pisa measurements.

Danish high schools are good (or at least they were in my day), but they are essentially grammar schools, so it’s hard to compare them to schools here. One interesting feature is that you can select to deselect maths and science to a very large degree, which will probably harm Denmark’s average scores for these subjects.

Its health service is buckling too. (The other day, I turned up at my local A&E to be told that I had to make an appointment, which I can’t help feeling rather misunderstands the nature of the service.) According to the World Cancer Research Fund, the Danes have the highest cancer rates on the planet.

The Danish health service has many problems. It’s organised and funded very much like the Scottish NHS (or perhaps more like the English NHS these days, given that privatised services are becoming an integrated part of it), except that dentistry isn’t included. I don’t think Scotland can learn much from Denmark in this regard.

“But at least the trains run on time!” I hear you say. No, that was Italy under Mussolini. The Danish national rail company has skirted bankruptcy in recent years, and the trains most assuredly do not run on time.

In my experience, Danish public transport is more punctual that what you find in the UK, but just like here, partial privatisation experiments have caused lots of problems.

Most seriously of all, economic equality – which many believe is the foundation of societal success – is decreasing. According to a report in Politiken this month, the proportion of people below the poverty line has doubled over the last decade.

Indeed. Denmark is most decidedly heading in the wrong direction. I would suggest that most of the lessons that Scotland can learn from Scandinavia with regard to building an world-class welfare state aren’t based on current developments. It’s the development and extension of the welfare state in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that we can learn a lot from, and sometimes from the later consolidation, but in most regards Denmark has ever since been pruning and scaling back welfare provisions — not so much because they had become unaffordable, but more because people have actually forgotten what poverty means, and if you don’t remember what the welfare state is protecting you from, it gets easy to think it’d be nice to pay fewer taxes.

Denmark’s provinces have become a social dumping ground for non-western immigrants, the elderly, the unemployed and the unemployable who live alongside Denmark’s 22m intensively farmed pigs, raised 10 to a pen and pumped full of antibiotics (the pigs, that is).

Yes, Denmark is a very centralised country, and pig farming is big business. The recent giraffe debacle has demonstrated the rather utilitarian attitude most Danes have to animals.

I’m not sure it’s true that the provinces have become a dumping ground. What seems to be happening is that anybody with a university degree or any ambitions gravitates towards Copenhagen or one of the other cities, but that’s something we’re seeing in many countries at the moment.

There remains a disturbing Islamophobic sub-subculture in Norway. Ask the Danes, and they will tell you that the Norwegians are the most insular and xenophobic of all the Scandinavians

Xenophobia is a problem in many Scandinavian countries. The cause is probably that the societies have been culturally uniform until recently, which makes it hard to accept that other people might want to do things differently.

The Danes have been described as a tribe, and it is indeed very difficult to get accepted while being different in any way. Danes have even started talking about requiring immigrants to assimilate rather than just integrate.

Danes also have a real problem with understanding why anybody would emigrate, unless it’s to get filthily rich.

It’s an area where I must say I prefer Scotland to Denmark. I love the fact that Scotland has been a multilingual country for at least two millennia, and indeed differences and conflicts are an integral part of Scottish culture, whether talking about languages, religions, clans or football.

Scotland is also very much a country of immigrants and emigrants, a country where almost every family has a grandparent born outwith Scotland, or a cousin who moved abroad.

Of course you can meet xenophobia in Scotland, too — it would be strange if it didn’t exist at all — but it’s much less insular and xenophobic than any of the Scandinavian countries.

The Finns are epic Friday-night bingers and alcohol is now the leading cause of death for Finnish men.

Binge-drinking is a problem in most countries where the winters are too dark for comfort. If anybody was under the impression that alcohol wasn’t a problem in Scandinavia, they’re sadly mistaken.

Most of the Nordic countries have opted for a highly controlled system (similar to what they have in Canada, I believe), where alcohol can only be purchased in state-owned shops that look more like pharmacies than supermarkets. Denmark, on the other hand, is extremely liberal. There is a cultural norm that says that you start drinking at your confirmation (age 13 or 14), and Danish high schools routinely serve beer at parties (age 15 and up).

Effectively a one-party state – albeit supported by a couple of shadowy industrialist families – for much of the 20th century, “neutral” Sweden (one of the world largest arms exporters) continues to thrive economically thanks to its distinctive brand of totalitarian modernism, which curbs freedoms, suppresses dissent in the name of consensus, and seems hell-bent on severing the bonds between wife and husband, children and parents, and elderly on their children. Think of it as the China of the north.

I believe this is a consequence of the tribe mentality I mentioned above. Because everybody is similar and conflicts are frowned upon, it gets easy to go to far. Because nurseries are plentiful and cheap, it becomes the norm to send your children there all day every day, and once the norm has become established, it gets difficult to go against it.

The myriad successes of the Nordic countries are no miracle, they were born of a combination of Lutheran modesty, peasant parsimony, geographical determinism and ruthless pragmatism (“The Russians are attacking? Join the Nazis! The Nazis are losing? Join the Allies!”). These societies function well for those who conform to the collective median, but they aren’t much fun for tall poppies. Schools rein in higher achievers for the sake of the less gifted; “elite” is a dirty word; displays of success, ambition or wealth are frowned upon.

In my experience, it’s mainly Londoners (even if they were born in Scotland) who find that Scandinavians frown upon displays of success and wealth; it’s not really that different from Scotland. The Lutheran mindset wasn’t really that different from the Presbyterian one, I believe, so again the difference is more marked when you come from England (and especially London) than when you’re from Scotland.

I think the points raised here have shown that Scotland can learn a lot from Scandinavia, but there are equally many points where Scandinavia should look at Scotland. That’s how it should be, and it’s best neither to idolise nor demonise any foreign country.

Many of the Danish/Scandinavian problems are due to excessive homogeneity, a lack of both immigration and emigration for many years, and the insular outlook you easily get from speaking a language that isn’t shared by other countries.

Scotland has never been a homogenous country, it’s always been a country of immigrants and emigrants, and the native use of English is a good bulwark against parochialism. I therefore think it’s likely that Scotland can successfully import many of the successful elements from Scandinavia without succumbing to the Scandinavian malaise.

The foreignness scale

In a recent blog posting, Herald journalist David Leask wrote: ‘[T]here are many places […] where the concept of “foreign” comes with a sliding scale rather than a simple binary yes/no switch.’

However, is this only the case in some places? When we ask ourselves whether somebody is a foreigner (in the sense of “an outsider or interloper”, not in the simpler sense of “a person from a foreign country”), don’t we always arrange people and places on a sliding scale? For a person from Glasgow, I presume the scale might look a bit like this:

Family Glasgow Scotland England Ireland Norway Poland Algeria Japan Amazon jungle
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Everybody will have their own scale, depending on how familiar you are with other places. If you’ve got family in Norway and have spent most of your holidays in Poland, these places will feel less foreign to you than to those of your compatriots that aren’t familiar with them.

Anyway, from a Scottish independence point of view, what’s important here is that England won’t suddenly jump from 1 to 10 on this scale after a Yes vote. If England is currently located around 4 and Ireland around 5, it would make sense for England gradually to shift towards 5, too, but it will most likely be a slow process, caused by an increasing unfamiliarity with the finer details of the other country’s politics, TV, education, etc.

When Better Together warn that family members in England will become foreigners overnight after a Yes vote, it’s clearly only true in the simplistic sense that they’ll be citizens of another country; they won’t feel more foreign at all.