by George Trefgarne
Thursday, 13
August 2020

The Nordic streak in Britain’s character

Our cultural links across the North Sea are deeper than we think
by George Trefgarne
Canute the Great, convinces his courtiers that he does not have power to stem the tide. Credit: Getty

We are not going to resolve the identity and institutional questions with which we are currently wrestling without acknowledging the Nordic streak in the British character.

In principle, this should not be difficult. The North Sea — gloriously inviting on a warm summer’s day and tumultuous in the depths of winter — is, like, a mini-Mediterranean, one of the great crucibles of civilisation.

Hybridity is an essential concept in understanding national identity, especially in Britain, a country made up of two nations, a principality and a province, all woven into a whole by a shared constitution, experience, geography, culture, custom and practice but being pulled hither and thither by Brexit.

The Atlantic-facing side of the British character has been well-aired and so has the Continental, across the Channel. But for some reason the North Sea and our relationship with our fluent-English speaking neighbours, with strong maritime traditions, a liking for diary products, golf and constitutional monarchy in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have been neglected.

Freddie Sayers writes in these pages about the quirks of Swedish culture, but allow me to offer three examples of what we share with our Nordic neighbours.

The first is to be found in the burial site of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk. The mighty helmet, shield and other items exhumed in the excavations strongly resemble those in ship-burials in Vendel, Sweden. We cannot be sure of the precise reason, but it is clear that the Sutton Hoo site is expressive of peoples who were bustling back and forth across the North Sea, trading as far as Byzantium.

Their Viking successors might be best-remembered as raiders, but things settled down in the tenth century. The East of England became, temporarily, Danelaw and in the eleventh century England was briefly swept into the arc of Denmark and we had two Danish Kings, Sven Forkbeard and Cnut.

The conflicts were never capable of stopping the trade. If you visit Kings Lynn in Norfolk you will find among architectural remnants of a Medieval trading hub the Hanse House, originally a series of residences and warehouses leased to merchants from the Hanseatic League. This was an alliance of trading cities and trading posts stretching from Aberdeen to Novogord in Russia. Along these routes travelled not just goods but ideas, including the Reformation.

The third example, I would say, is manners. The Nordic nations are characterised by a strong middle class, high levels of social capital and of an understanding of “liberty under the law”. But they do not just rely on the law to enforce social norms, they respect custom, practice and consideration for one another. These are the bourgeois values which also underpinned the Industrial Revolution here, as the historian Deidre McCloskey (correct) has explained.

How we should celebrate and nurture our cultural and economic links is across the North Sea through all sorts of things from student-exchanges, to sport, to perhaps joining the European Free Trade Association (a sort-of free trade talking shop founded by Britain in the 1960s) is a separate conversation.

One thing I do assert is the Nordic countries, particularly Sweden and Norway, have done a fantastic job in confronting the coronavirus, avoiding the worst excesses of the lockdown and limiting the economic damage. Their states, built on strong institutions, high levels of female participation and sovereign wealth funds, are apparently well prepared for the challenges of the 21st Century. I suspect the Scots look upon them with admiration and so should the rest of us.

Join the discussion

  • How very refreshing to hear such fulsome praise for how Sweden and Norway have handled the The Great Panic, that is C-19!

    It total contrast off course to our own deplorable performance. Only yesterday our Chancellor, Mr Sunak was bleating we are ” grappling with something that is unprecedented “. ie total financial melt down!
    Well done Sir, and you have brought on yourself and, sadly the rest of this benighted nation. A self inflicted wound, that is without precedent in British History.

    As our Prime Minister will know in Ancient Rome, when government officials and others, from the top downwards were perceived to have grievously failed, they were encouraged to take their life and rid society of their embarrassing presence.

    The question is, will Boris do the decent thing and emulate Gaius Gracchus, Marcus Junius Brutus, Cato the Younger and numerous other ‘Noble Romans’? I live in hope, if not expectation.

  • Whilst, I appreciate that this article relates to our Nordic neighbours. It can’t be denied that people do determine culture and, it’s worth a look at Douglas Murray’s book ‘The Strange Death of Europe’ and, his analysis and explanation as to the issues and concerns about an influx of different cultures into a society without, any dedicated plan for integration or assimilation.

  • It is possible to have nuanced debate about the negatives (and positives) of external cultural influence without being derogatory.

    That is precisely the problem with a lot of debate on these issues so it would be a shame to descend into that here.

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