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Our Friends in the North (July 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Scotland's historic relations with Norway are often overlooked, but they should not be ignored.


To Norroway, to Norroway,
To Norroway over the faem.
The King's daughter o' Norroway
'Tis thou maun bring her hame.
Half ower, half ower, frae Aberdour,
'Tis sixty fathoms deep,
And there lies gude Sir Patric Spens
Wi' the Scots lords at his feet

Scotland's Norse relations have been vivid, if not historically always happy. The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens echoed the crisis that followed the deaths of King Alexander III in 1286 and his heir, the Maid of Norway: Edward I's invasions, Wallace and Bruce, the Auld Alliance with France. But Scotland and Scots were to play a great role in the evolution of the modern Norwegian state, and the key figures of its national culture.

William Christie, from a Scots merchant family of Bergen, was an architect of the 1814 Eidsvoll constitution, which gave representative government under the Swedish crown. Colin Archer was one of the creators of the Norwegian shipbuilding industry; his diesel-powered "Fram" took Amundsen on his South Polar voyages (marked by democratic success and not, as with the Scott expedition, heroic disaster). Edvard Grieg, the Norwegian national composer, the centennial of whose death falls in this year, was of the MacGregor clan. The great Henrik Ibsen wanted to be of Scots descent, and the North Berwick-born William Archer, Colin's cousin and Bernard Shaw's friend, was his first great champion in the Anglophone world.

This was, in the emergency of the second world war, to become a close bond, particularly with the Shetland islands, and the "Shetland Bus" - the little fishing boats that carried agents to the fjords. But, as ever, the UK's great power delusions got in the way, in combination with greed and laziness. Forward to 1964: in the negotiations on dividing the subsea resources of the North Sea, the UK government lost interest in hard bargaining, and allowed the Norwegians to extend their zone to the point of equidistance, rather than ending it at the 600-metre-deep Trench, which was far closer to Norway. Norway thus got the Frigg gasfield and the Ekofisk and Statfjord oilfields. A defeat, had Whitehall but known it, greater than Suez.

Norway had 2.3 million inhabitants in 1900, today it's 4.5 million. If Scotland had followed her neighbour's pattern of moderate social democracy, the creation of a welfare state and a flexible manufacturing centre, its population would have been nearly 10 million by today. Just as Baden-Wuerttemberg and Sweden, which had the same population as Scotland in 1900, now have populations well north of 10 million.

More setbacks were ahead. Norway took from the beginning of the oil discoveries a low-depletion oil policy, like the one urged on the Conservatives' Scottish Office by their economic adviser Dr Gavin McCrone in 1974. This was not done. Neither was there any Oil Fund, though this was promised by all parties in the second 1974 election. Instead Scotland was put on the drip feed of the Barnett Formula. What then happened to the Norwegian fund? Well, it's now worth £73 billion or £15,000 per Norwegian. Gordon Brown's response? British private debt alone is about £13 trillion: a debt of £22,000 per Briton.

How do we sort matters out? Well, Scotland still has about a third of her oil left. If she gets together with her Norwegian neighbours in a sort of mini-OPEC, keeps the price of North Sea oil up in the era of Peak Oil (and this may rise in pretty short order to more than $200 a barrel; in 1999 it was only $10 a barrel), and uses the income as collateral to obtain hi-tech equipment and training, then her government can promote the necessary industrial and infrastructural reconstruction.

In the course of his long stay in 11 Downing Street, Gordon Brown has looked across the North Sea as seldom as he has looked across the Channel. The Norwegians decided against EEC membership, but have remained helpfully semi-detached, an option which - given our continuing energy endowment - we should not dismiss lightly. The minority SNP government in Edinburgh has so far managed to think out of the box, and first minister Salmond (now armed with a Council of Economic Advisers including two Nobel prizewinners and the ex-Guardian Frances Cairncross) will visit Oslo next month. Expect developments.

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