Mary Dejevsky: Forget about café culture and embrace your inner Viking

It is not just the proliferation of skating rinks. Each time I have visited Scotland in recent years, I have had the impression it has become more Scandinavian
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For the third year in a row, the UK has been caught on the hop by the snow. The Christmas and New Year plans of millions have been wrecked. Our premier airport found it easier to erect marquees than dislodge frozen planes. (If it can't keep two runways clear, what was it doing wanting a third?) And new falls overnight threaten to cut off Scotland – or England, depending which side of the border you start. A favoured hypothesis is that climate change is "switching off" the Gulf Stream. Global warming, it appears, will have the very opposite effect on these isles.

All of which has unleashed the usual charges and counter-charges, laced this year with abject official apologies straight out of the playbook of Max Clifford. But I wonder, whatever the future of the Gulf Stream, whether there is not a simpler and more amenable solution? Should we not finally acknowledge that we have more in common with northern, than with southern, Europe and cheerfully embrace our inner Viking? Is it not time, perhaps, to reconcile ourselves to Britain's destiny as a Nordic land?

When you actually look at it, everything points in this direction – starting with geography. On the map, Britain fits snugly into north-western Europe. The closest part of North America is not New York, but Newfoundland and New England. Weather conditions follow. The "proper" winter most parts of the country have experienced in this and the two preceding years is exceptional only in the context of the past decade.

Pretty much anyone over 40 will remember, if not white Christmases, then tobogganing expeditions, snowball fights, begging a carrot for the snowman's nose, and white stuff that lay for weeks on end, the piles on pavements growing greyer with each day that passed. Britain was quite good at shovelling then; it's surely a latent skill that needs only to be revived.

Then there is our temperament. As recent disasters have shown, not least the response to 7/7 as recounted at the official inquest, the population of Britain naturally tends to the phlegmatic, co-operative and practical – not unlike Swedes after the recent terrorist attack there. Who is complaining most loudly about the hellish conditions at Heathrow? Why, foreigners, and mostly from warmer countries.

Those same foreigners also observe how cold and reserved Britons may appear – until, that is, you get to know them. Just like Scandinavians. And we treat alcohol in the same way; like them, we use it to keep warm and drown our inhibitions, and we regularly over-indulge. New Labour's great hope that 24-hour licensing would convert us to Continental café culture has been exposed as the wishful thinking it was. In fact, Helsinki and Copenhagen have done a better job of assimilating café culture than we have, but they still go binge-drinking of a weekend night.

Where the biggest adjustments have to be made is in politics and the organisation of our society. Even here, though, something is stirring – something that seems to accord naturally with our temperament and tradition. And it is not just the proliferation of winter skating rinks. Each time I have visited Scotland in recent years, I have the impression that it has become more Scandinavian in its attitudes and feel, that it is more protective of the state, and that it is orientated more to its north and east than to its south.

Paradoxically, it is with the arrival of a Conservative-led Coalition in Westminster that the so-called Nordic social model is suddenly being taken seriously. Where New Labour was seduced by the Anglo-Saxon – ie American free-market – way of doing things, and did its best to sell this to the rest of Europe (as the Lisbon Agenda), the Scandinavians stood apart, quietly satisfied with the success of their own model: statist, collaborative, socially cohesive, but also flexible and internationally competitive.

Sweden's "free" schools are not all the Coalition is finding to admire in Scandinavia. Its approach to the banks and deficit-cutting owes something to Sweden's experience in the early 1990s. Iain Duncan Smith's welfare agenda also looks north and east, rather than across the Atlantic. And if anyone objects that Britain has a low-tax, high-growth economy that would not sustain Scandinavian-level services, I suggest they add their tax and national insurance together and see what they get. Then compare national growth figures. Nor does it stop there. Mr Cameron is to host the first Nordic and Baltic summit next month, an initiative designed to "forge stronger economic and social [my italics] links". Who, as they say, would have thought it?

Consider, too, that it was when Britain and other Nordic countries threw themselves at the speculative money markets, forsaking the Protestant prudence that had helped to establish their reputation as reliable bankers, that everything started to go wrong.

Weaning our British selves off Empire and the ambition to "punch" militarily and diplomatically "above our weight" may take a little longer. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, have fostered a popular aversion to gratuitous involvement in armed conflicts that may permit a more realistic appraisal of our capabilities. The Scandinavians have always known that the Vikings were as likely to be traders and farmers as warriors. Are not peace-keeping and mediation noble callings too?

But why – the question virtually asks itself – if we have so much in common with the Nordic countries, have successive UK governments sought friends and precedents almost everywhere but there? And why does the Mediterranean appear more attractive in the public imagination than the midnight sun and fjords? One 20th-century reason may be the inherited hostility towards Germany, and the association of Norse mythology with Nazism; was there something dangerous about getting too close? Another may be the eternal quest of those in cold countries for warmer climes – a choice that became feasible with mass tourism.

What we failed to understand, though, was that otherness is what makes the exotic attractive, and that what is natural and familiar has advantages. We have also allowed inevitable globalisation to obscure the value of regional allegiance. This month's snow provides a salutary reminder: Britain must stop trying to be what it is not, and at last accept where it belongs.