20014 is quite a year for anniversaries. One that is likely to pass more or less unnoticed in the UK is the 200th anniversary of Norway’s constitution. Not of course in Norway itself, where there are various exhibitions on this momentous event. The anniversary is later this month – 17th May to be precise. What is of particular significance about this constitution of 1814 is that it was meant to be the constitution for an independent Norway. Independence alas, only came briefly for Norway in 1814. The country’s desire for independence was swiftly crushed by the Great Powers of the day. Any lessons for Scotland in 2014?
The Great Powers tend to oppose independence movements
This is one of the main lessons for Scotland today. The hostility shown by the larger powers to the possibility of Scottish independence is par for the course. In 1814 it was Norway which faced the force of this hostility. At the time Norway was part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Unluckily for Norway, Denmark had ended up on the losing side of the bitter Napoleonic wars. The future of the Kingdom was decided by the victorious sides in that war in a deal known as the Treaty of Kiel. As part of this deal, Norway was to be given to Sweden, in part to punish Denmark, and in part to compensate Sweden, which had lost Finland to Russia during the wars. See how principled the great powers were! The ownership of whole nations could be exchanged at the drop of a hat, without as much as a by your leave. Has much changed?
The Norwegians were not much impressed by the way their country was being treated and decided to go it alone and create their own, independent Kingdom. A constituent assembly was elected which drew up the famous constitution. All, alas to no avail. The right to self determination was not much in vogue in those days. The great powers acted in concert to thwart Noway’s independence. Sweden invaded, winning a short war and Norway became effectively part of Sweden. Our own UK was unsurprisingly one of the strongest opponents of Norwegian independence. Which may partly explain why there will be little if any coverage in the UK of this particular 200th anniversary.
The constitution survived
Another important lesson from Norway was that though it was denied independence it was able to secure self government. The Union with Sweden was a personal union with the King of Sweden and the new Norwegian constitution became the basis for government in Norway. This was of crucial importance in the years to come. Norway developed its own national institutions and by the end of the century the country was ready to take the next step. The years of running their own government gave Norwegians the confidence to campaign for full independence. This came in 1905 after a bitter dispute with Sweden over international representation.
This is of course of particular relevance for Scotland. We now have our own parliament and our own government which is responsible for most of the decisions which determine our lives. What we need is not just our own international voice, but control over our economy. With our own government, the next step to full independence is not such a large step as it would have been 20, 30 or more years ago.
The international consensus can change
When Norway did finally become an independent country in 1905, it did so with the support of the UK. The same UK which opposed Norwegian independence in 1814 had by 1905 become one of the most vociferous supporters of Norway. The UK had not suddenly become converted to the right of self determination, but the international situation had changed. Germany was now the rising European power and Germany had very good relations with Sweden. By 1905 the UK, fearful that in any war Germany might use Norway’s ports, as did happen in the 2nd World War, was predisposed to welcome Norwegian independence as a counterpoise to German influence over Sweden.
By 1905 of course the demand for independence came from not just from the elites, but from most Norwegians. The Norwegian government proposed independence and this was massively supported by the people in a referendum. It will be similar for Scotland in 2014. Independence has been proposed by the Scottish government and the final decision will be up to us, the people who live in Scotland. In September’s referendum we get the opportunity to peacefully vote for independence.
Scottish independence will come about through a negotiated and legal referendum. As such a Yes vote will significantly change the international situation. Countries that currently oppose Scottish independence will be faced with a new reality, one they can do little about. While those countries that at present remain neutral, for fear of intervening in the internal affairs of the UK, will be free to express their support for our independence. Norway has shown that independence can come, that it can come peacefully and without any difficulties. Norway also shows that independence can lead to a more prosperous and fairer future. Happy Constitution Day to all Norwegians on 17th May. May Scotland soon join you as another independent country!