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Nordic

Atlantic Ocean Road, Norway <em>Picture: Ernst Vikne</em>

Atlantic Ocean Road, Norway Picture: Ernst Vikne

What do you think of when you hear the word Scandinavian? Is it liberalism? Or social democracy? Perhaps high standards of living? Or high tax rates? Maybe saunas and snow?

Whatever it is, could we become Scandinavians – and, if we could, would we want to?

That was the issue which was raised to the top of the political agenda over the weekend when it emerged that SNP strategists believe that an independent Scotland’s future lies in looking north and east, not south.

Angus Robertson, the SNP’s foreign and defence spokesman, has been leading the charge towards the Nordicisation of Scotland and his arguments are compelling.

He points to the opening up of new shipping lanes over the north of Russia because of global warming. These new routes offer to save companies 40 per cent on fuel and time costs in journeys from the Far East to Europe.

At the moment, that trade will go to Rotterdam. But what, Mr Robertson argues, if some of that trade could be persuaded to come through Scotland – and, in particular, through a new container hub at Rosyth?

Then there is energy, and proposals for a super-grid between Scotland and Norway. Then there is oil, and fishing and maritime surveillance and defence.

Mr Robertson’s argument is that Scotland used to enjoy close trade, diplomatic and maritime links with Scandinavia, but these were lost when Scotland joined the Union with England and started looking south.

With independence, he says, it is time to look towards our old neighbours again.

But there is more. Along with this new, Scandic, approach to diplomacy and trade is a defence strategy designed to dovetail with the Norwegians, the Swedes and the Danes and provide Scotland with the sort of defence forces which the other Scandinavian countries have pioneered.

This means small, high-tech, deployable forces designed to look after our corner of the world which, along with the Norwegians, Danes and Swedes, means the High North and Arctic – not the plains of Germany, the deserts of Irag or the mountains of Afghanistan.

That is the overt message. But is there a subliminal one, as well? How much do we want to become like the Scandinavians domestically, too?

By talking about trade and diplomacy and energy and minerals and fishing and defence, senior Nationalists have started creating an image of an independent Scotland as one that is similar – at least outwardly – to its Scandinavian neighbours.

They insist that this would not mean punitively high rates of tax or conscription or any of the other aspects of Scandinavian life which may appear unpalatable.

But how would we feel if we went further and started to aspire to be like the Scandinavians in social policy, or in penal policy, or in taxation?

Everybody seems to agree that the Scandinavians enjoy an enviable standard of living, generally, and that they seem to reach agreement on key domestic agendas by doing what is right, rather than by political dogma – but Sweden also seems to have the highest tax rates in the world, and these have been blamed for limiting ambition and economic growth.

But maybe that is a good thing. Given where Scotland is at the moment on a whole range of different indices, maybe it would be good to swap what we have for the Scandinavian model – regardless of the downsides.

What is certain, though, is that we have to have this debate. The SNP leadership has opened up the prospect of Scotland shifting its focus dramatically after independence and this then raises fresh questions about what sort of country we would want an independent Scotland to be.

The SNP’s political opponents will accuse the Nationalists of simply repackaging the old “Arc of Prosperity” slogan – but this new “Nordic” model is more complicated, better researched and more rounded than the now discredited “Arc of Prosperity” mantra.

Whatever the political views about this new approach, what does need to happen is that we need to discuss it, debate it and explore all its pros and cons in a mature, rational and lengthy discourse.

After all, isn’t that what the Scandinavians would do?

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by Val Hamilton

Sastrugi

In Strathspey, most of the ground remains snow-covered. Friends email from further south, telling of time spent in the garden, when here a trip to the compost bin is a major undertaking.

Walking anywhere is difficult, with ice on pavements and deep snow on paths – but high pressure prevails, the air is still and crisp, and there is a risk of taking the world-class views for granted.

Even in these settled conditions, the snow varies daily. As David “Heavy” Whalley said in a highly entertaining mountain safety talk at the Aviemore Mountain Café last week, check the weather and avalanche forecasts, but use your eyes and ears to assess what is actually happening from the moment you set off for the hills. This was one of many commonsense observations made in a presentation which was part of a series organised bythe Mountaineering Council of Scotland.

Whalley’s wisdom stems from 37 years in RAF Mountain Rescue and from evidence accumulated as compiler of Scottish mountain accident statistics. Even my usually critical husband Graham, an ex-rescue team member himself, could find nothing to disagree with in Whalley’s advice and comments.

Last weekend was an example of the need to switch on senses and react to the conditions encountered. The weather patterns looked similar for Saturday and Sunday – sunny, calm, relatively warm – but the reality underfoot was very different.

On Saturday, not fancying the early start required to get a space in the Cairngorm car park, I opted for a ski-tour from home using traditional Nordic touring skis and leather boots. The snow was soft and soggy but deep enough to bear weight, and progress was slow but easy.

My plan had been to head across the moors south-west of Nethy Bridge to Ryvoan bothy, but a set of ski-tracks from the previous weekend was beguiling and I followed them uphill. The snow texture was perfect for fishscale skis – these have a pattern cut into the base to allow grip when ascending. Soon I was approaching the ridge between Craiggowrie and Meall a’ Bhuachaille, and only minor effort was required to reach the crest and the views of endless white mountains.

The heavy snow meant a slow descent. A more confident skier could have pushed off straight down the hill, but – aware of my solitary status – I made long, gentle traverses with step turns to change direction. Not exciting or dramatic, but wonderfully peaceful and relaxing.

With confidence high, the prospect of a Sunday tour of Cairngorm’s northern corries with Graham and our friend Geoff was appealing, but there had been a harder frost and ice in the car park was an indication of conditions ahead. The snow was firm as we set off towards Lurcher’s Gully, and it was not 9am when we put on skins – no grip from fishscales now – to begin the climb to the plateau. We assumed the surface would soften as the sun broke through the early high cloud.

The sun did not break through. Not only did the snow remain unforgivingly solid, it had frozen into the wind-sculpted ripples known as sastrugi – beautiful formations fringed with ice tassels like a vast candlewick bedspread. Desperate terrain to ski over.

Although the cloud was above the summits and macro-navigation was no problem, the light was so flat that, at the micro level, it was impossible to make out the aspect of the slope – or, at times, even to know if we were moving. As Whalley had suggested, ears were giving as much information as eyes, as we reacted to the change of sound from our ski bases.

For the second day running, long, angled traverses were the only safe means of descent. After a final steep climb from Coire Raibert, it was a relief to reach the bustle of Cairngorm summit. The passage of numerous walkers, skiers and boarders had churned the route back to the ski area, allowing a few cautious turns. The ease of return down the pistes reminded us of why this resort-skiing lark had developed in the first place.

Up Helly Aa: another Scandinavian import. <em>Picture: Anne Burgess</em>

Up Helly Aa: another Scandinavian import. Picture: Anne Burgess

Tories usually look on Sweden with an expression of horror. Intelligent, progressive and humane, the Nordic nation stands for everything they detest. At least, that’s situation normal. However, abnormal developments are afoot, as the Swedes start to lose the plot and tinker with their “too good to be true” state.

This has attracted the attention of our impish Conservatives, ever eager to impose wrong and unnatural things on Scotia.

During an education debate in Holyrood yesterday, waspish Elizabeth Smith (Con) announced: “I hear on the grapevine that it is very difficult this weekend to get a flight to Scandinavia.” She seemed to be suggesting that most of the seats had been booked by Scottish ministers and Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott.

They were a bit late, she averred. Former Tory leader David “Taxi!” McLetchie had made the same flight years ago, and had learned all there was to know.

And what was that? Well, according to Elizabeth, the Swedes had improved their education system by giving parents the choice – ah, the “c” word; already I smell an “r” word – of different education providers. “They have got it right,” she hollered triumphantly. They were driving up standards rather than being content with the lowest common denominator. What’s wrong with the lowest common denominator? Never did me any harm.

It wasn’t just Sweden, she said. The Netherlands and Canada were also at it and they, like Sweden, are traditionally not very Tory-style countries (the conservatives in them are usually somewhere to the left of our Labour Party; mind you, isn’t everybody?).

Said Elizabeth: “I fully acknowledge that in Sweden it took eight years to convince a sceptical public that the new freedoms in the state sector would work.” She claimed that even socialists in these countries backed the system now. One fears that, in the matter of choice, they have no choice.

My view is that Sweden has started to lose its nerve in recent years. Traditionally light years ahead of the murky Europeans, it was nagged relentessly by followers of the so-called Anglo-Saxon, dog-eat-dog model of life to drop their progressive palaver and get real. One of the first casualties was the postal service, now privatised to a level of ludicrous inefficiency.

Now they were mucking up their schools, much to the Tories’ delight.

Elizabeth hollered: “Doing nothing is not an option.” Oh, don’t say that, gal. It’s only when politicians do something that all the trouble begins. Better to say: don’t just do something, sit there.

Education secretary Michael Russell acknowledged that he was going to Sweden, and indeed Finland, this weekend, to ask teachers there about strengths and weaknesses in their systems.

The aforementioned McLetchie rose and said: “Are schools in Finland and Sweden not closed at the weekend?” Mike let the laughter linger and acted as if he’d been caught out, before explaining that, while he was flying forth on Sunday afternoon, he’d be visiting the schools on Monday and Tuesday.

I like to think he’ll be going out on the piss on the Sunday night but I expect he’ll just sit in his room and keep telling himself: “I must not spend the taxpayers’ money.”

He rejected an accusation that he and Mr Spock look-alike Ken McIntosh (Lab) were having “a socialist love affair”. I’m not quite sure what that is. Do you have to queue for your conjugal rights? Are there forms to fill in? A tax on every snog? Whatever the case, Michael insisted there was nothing “x-rated” going on between him and the Vulcan.

However, he stunned the mob with this telling confession: “I was at a rather odd school.” You would never have guessed. Marr College, he said, was a grant-aided comprehensive. He said it admitted every child in Troon, but nobody from outside it, which sounded rather sinister. What had they to fear?

All this fearfully entertaining fare came to an end when top dullard Des McNulty (Lab) rose to drone. I wondered why the security guards were locking the doors and scurrying away. Even the pigeons on the roof flew off. He said he admired Sweden – it is, to be fair, a boring country – but was not impressed with the educational reforms.

In maths, he said, it had suffered the biggest drop in standards after Bulgaria. Maths. Bulgaria. Des. I was losing the will to live. I don’t mind Des being boring, but he’s double-boring because he keeps repeating his own words. At last, thankfully, he said: “I am at the end end of my time time.” Yeah, ta-ta, ta-ta. Don’t hurry hurry back back.

Bubbly Margaret Smith (Lib Dem) is always a breath of fresh air. She breenged in with a quotation from that Aristotle, to wit: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” This was rather reminiscent of the definition of a gentleman: someone who can play the accordion, but chooses not to.

Margaret went on: “We have heard a lot about Swedish models.” Oh, talk to me about it. Really, don’t go there. In my experience, they just use you and break your heart.

Adenoidal Bill Aitken (Con) rose to declaim: “Presiding orifice, to paraphrase what they say in Yorkshire: when something is broke you do fix it.” I see. And your point, baldie? “All is not well in Scottish education.” Well, cripes, we know that. No one produces more neds and thickies than us. Even Bill referred to “childrens” at one point. I kids you not.

He said that he, “a boy from a poor area”, had gone to a grant-aided school that was so successful it was shut down by socialist Glaswegians. They didn’t want to hear about … aw, shurrup.

Christina McKelvie (SNP), declaring herself a fan of Swedish pop music, invited Elizabeth to “Take a Chance on Me” and embrace other Swedish models, such as progressive taxation. It was “Money, Money, Money” which funded their education system, and she was sure John “Super Trouper” Swinney would love to pump millions into Scottish education. I’m getting an image of the accountant-style finance secretary dancing and snapping his fingers. Most distressing.

Karen Whitefield (Lab), who speaks like a four-year-old, described Sweden as “the country for which the Tories want us all to look”. Aw, isn’t it sweet to hear them struggling with the language? By next year, when Karen starts attending school, I’m sure she’ll be chorusing with the rest of us: “Du gamla, Du fria, Du fjällhöga nord/Du tysta, Du glädjerika sköna!” That’s from the Swedish national anthem. It’s a song I know well. It means: “Du-doobie, du-doobie, doobie-doobie-du.”