Returning to the Nordic Roots

Culture - January 26, 2024

European Diary: Oslo, May 2022

Oslo, the capital of Norway, was the first foreign city I visited. It was in the summer of 1972, when I had just graduated from Reykjavik Grammar School. A classmate of mine was the son of the Icelandic Ambassador to Norway, and I stayed with him and his family in the spacious and comfortable ambassadorial residence on Bygdøy, a peninsula on the western side of Oslo. I found it a bit difficult to fall asleep the first night because of the rustling of leaves on the trees in the garden. Although they made only a gentle swishing sound, it disturbed me because I had never heard this sound before. There were practically no trees in Iceland (although that is no longer the case). My friend’s family received me with open arms. The Ambassador was a distinguished lawyer and scholar who had written a massive and reliable history of Icelandic civil administration in the fifty years after Iceland got home rule in 1904. His wife was a graceful, cultured lady. Once over dinner the topic of discussion was what to do at a formal dinner party where chicken was served if one of the guests suddenly started to use his fingers. After a brief discussion the Ambassador’s wife gave her verdict: One should act as if one had not noticed it at all.

Snorri, Chydenius, and the Eidsvoll Men

Oslo in 1972 was called the biggest village in Europe because it was then a rather quiet place, with little night life, everything closing early. The Norwegians were not, and still are not, renowned party animals. Most of them seem to lead a very healthy lifestyle. In the summer, they like sailing, and in the winter, they go skiing. Nevertheless, now Oslo is modern and cosmopolitan, and very expensive, like Zürich and Reykjavik. (It is probably no coincidence that the three richest countries in Europe, Norway, Switzerland, and Iceland, all remain outside the European Union.) I have been in Oslo several times since my salad days of 1972, and in May 2022 I was there once again, fifty years after my first visit. I was giving a a talk to a conference of Nordic conservative students on 21 May. My main theme was that American and European leftwingers might try to single out the Nordic countries as examples of successful socialism, but that in fact they could take pride in a strong conservative-liberal tradition, embodied in institutions and articulated by able and persuasive thinkers.

I pointed out that Snorri Sturluson had in Heimskringla, his history of the Norwegian kings, expressed sympathy with the ancient ideas that kings were subject to the same laws as their subject and that they could be deposed if they violated those laws. Indeed, in a speech Snorri composed in the name of an Icelandic farmer, he even suggested that it was best to have no king but the law. Again, the Fenno-Swedish writer Anders Chydenius presented a theory about the mutual benefit from trade, eleven years before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published. It was also little known, I added, that the 1814 Eidsvoll Constitution of Norway, the most liberal constitution in Europe at the time and still in force, was heavily influenced by two personal friends and disciples of Adam Smith, the Anker Brothers.

Nordic Liberalism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

In my talk, I defined the conservative-liberal tradition as the support of private property, free trade, and limited government, combined with a respect for spontaneously developed traditions. I mentioned the liberal Nordic statesmen of the nineteenth century who implemented wide-ranging and sweeping liberal reforms, Johan August Gripenstedt in Sweden, Anton Martin Schweigaard in Norway and many others, and the strong liberal tradition in Swedish economics in the first half of the twentieth century, defined and developed by Gustav Cassel, Eli Heckscher, and Bertil Ohlin. In Denmark the influential pastor, poet and politician Nikolaj F. S. Grundtvig was a committed economic and political liberal. Many Nordic thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were also strong individualists even if they could perhaps not be characterised as conservative liberals, for example Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Georg Brandes, and Knut Wicksell. In my own country Iceland, Brandes and Ibsen made a great impact, and Cassel inspired Jon Thorlaksson, the founder of the Independence Party and Prime Minister.

I argued that the relative success on most criteria of the Nordic countries was despite, and not because of, the political dominance of social democrats in the twentieth century. It could be attributed to a firm tradition of the rule of law, including the protection of private property, a commitment to free trade, and a high level of trust and social cohesion. Indeed, the strong conservative-liberal tradition of the Nordic countries had acted as an intellectual and political constraint on socialist schemes.

Conversations with Sir Roger Scruton

The panel in which I participated was moderated by philosopher Øyvind J.V. Evenstad. The conference was sponsored by the Brussels think tank New Direction and the Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation and mainly devoted to the ideas of British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton who passed away in January 2020. The topics discussed in panels reflected the many and diverse interests of this remarkable polymath: sexuality, courtship, and marriage; Western civilisation; the crisis of modern architecture in Europe; green conservatism; Nordic conservatism; and sovereignty and the nation state from a European perspective. In my talk, I recalled my conversations with Sir Roger and pointed out that over time he had become more sympathetic to Friedrich A. von Hayek’s political position, as could be seen in his contribution, ‘Hayek and Conservatism’, to the Cambridge Companion to Hayek (2007). Hungarian Professor Ferenc Hörcher gave a talk at the end of the conference about the life and legacy of Sir Roger. Another highlight of the conference was when painter Øde Nerdrum gave an interesting keynote talk about Western civilisation.

The singer Countess Elizabet Torolphi Mörner entertained the participants at the closing dinner, with Ase Mathiesen Palm on the piano. On that occasion, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, former Prime Minister of Iceland and an admirer of Sir Roger Scruton’s work, gave the after-dinner speech. The conference was ably organised by Petter Kirkeholmen, Knut Haraldsen, and Haakon Teig, with around 150 paying participants. It was taped and is available online.