Another referendum - but a different time, a different place and a different result

The result was 99% yes, but that was in another time, another place, and another independence referendum. This referendum took place a hundred and nine years ago, in Norway, in 1905, where 368 208 voters chose “yes” and only 184 chose “no”.

Only men had the right to vote, but, just as in the Scottish independence debate, women were very much engaged. Not having the right to vote, Norwegian women organised a petition, which gathered nearly two hundred and fifty thousand signatures.

The pace of Norway’s journey towards greater autonomy was slower than that of Scotland. Like Scotland, Norway had shared both the formal head of state (the king) and the parliament with a neighbouring country: Until 1814, Norway was part of Denmark and political decisions were made in Copenhagen. This year, in 2014, however, Norway celebrated the 200th anniversary of having its own constitution, and its own parliament. Norway broke the bonds to Denmark, but instead entered into a looser union with Sweden, sharing its king and foreign policy and representation abroad. It was nearly a hundred years before this union was also dissolved, and the way in which this happened is what I want to write about today.

Dissatisfaction was brewing in Norway from the 1860s onwards. As in Scotland of today, the political left was strong. The party which was simply named “Venstre” (“Left”) had a strong presence in the Norwegian parliament and lots of support in the population, whereas Swedish politics were more conservative than it was prepared to tolerate. This movement thought the Swedish king had too much power. So radicalism and anti-unionism went hand in hand, just as I have observed in the weeks and months leading up to the Scottish referendum. Swedish conservatives were not very happy about this, and became sceptical towards the union as well. It was as if the union was being pulled apart by two sides that were diametrically opposed to one another.

From 1884, “Left” came to power in Norway and from started a hard fight against the union. They demanded that Norway should have its own foreign policy. This was especially important because Sweden at the time wanted a close relationship with Germany, while Norway was looking more towards Britain.

In 1895, it nearly came to a war between the two countries. Sweden terminated the common market that had existed within the union, and this was met with fury in Norway. War was narrowly avoided, and the union shakily continued for another decade.

However, in 1904 things came to a head again when the Swedish prime minister stated that if Norway were to have its own consulates, they would have to stick to Swedish foreign policy. This caused so much political commotion in Norway that the government resigned, and Christian Michelsen came to power as a new and radical prime minister.

The radical Norwegian government dealt with the disagreement over the consulates by passing a law which said that Norway should have independent consulates. This law needed to be signed by the Swedish king, which he refused, and the government then refused to sign his refusal and handed in their letters of resignation, which the king in turn refused to accept because he couldn’t form another government. Back in Oslo, prime minister Michelsen realised how he could use this as a lever to split up the union: He declared that as the Swedish king was not able to put together a Norwegian government, he had ceased to function as Norwegian head of state.

Both sides had seen where this was going for a while, and the Swedish Crown Prince Gustav was not against dissolving the union. But neither side wanted to take the final responsibility and the “blame” for the breakdown of the union. This twist by Michelsen allowed the Norwegian government to lay the formal “blame” on Sweden, while also being celebrated by the people of Norway for their cleverness. And Sweden, this time, was not interested in fighting. However, the Swedish people thought the Norwegian government had played dirty. Sweden set down a committee which was to settle the conditions under which Sweden would be willing to accept Norway’s breakout from the union.

Two conditions that Sweden set was that all Norwegian fortresses along the border should be demolished, and that there should be a referendum in Norway. Norway felt it would be a pity to demolish two old fortresses of particular historical interest, and the compromise was that only relatively new fortresses were demolished while the old ones were spared as historical monuments.

Also, the referendum went ahead of the 13th of August, with a landslide win for the “yes” side. In the spirit of peace, a younger member of the Swedish royal family was offered the new position on the Norwegian throne, but he declined. The job instead went to a Danish prince, who became King Haakon the 7th. The Swedish king Oscar II was much admired internationally for having avoided a war, and he was honoured for his brave and mature handling of the situation at a peace congress in The Hague in 1907.

Although the two countries needed some years to find their feet again without each other, the relationship gradually improved. Today, Norway’s tongue-in-cheek nickname for Sweden is “Sweet Brother”. The borders are open, with no passport controls, and Sweden is among Norway’s closest trading partners and greatest sources of immigration.

In 1905, Norway started out as a tiny independent state of two million people. The two world wars which were soon to follow also took their toll, but an enormous effort, led by the Labour Party, after World War 2 in getting the country back on track and building industry and jobs and the welfare state took Norway out of austerity.  Topped up with the lucky discovery of oil in the 1960s, Norway has now become a nation of 5 million people which sits comfortably at the top of league tables as one of the richest and happiest countries in the world.

Ragnhild Ljosland

Originally published in The Orcadian, 25th September 2014, page 29.



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