Jane Jacobs: The Secession of Norway from Sweden (Part 3)

Please see the Contents and chapter one or Part 1 of Chapter 3 or Part 2 of Chapter 3.

Chapter 3, The Secession of Norway from Sweden . Part 3 (pages 43 to 51)

From The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty (Jane Jacobs, Random House, New York, 1980)

For discussion purposes as allowed under the fair dealing exception of the Copyright Act.

The uses to which the Storting put its new powers were exemplary from a democratic point of view. It concerned itself with such things as introducing the jury system for criminal cases, improving the school system, providing for locally elected school boards, extending suffrage. More ominously, it reorganized the Norwegian army on a more democratic basis. From this point on, the Storting could count on the army.
Things calmed down for a few years. The unionists accepted responsible government as a a fact of life and even won an election or two because of splits in the separatist party over personalities and strategies. But beginning in 1888, the conflict flared up anew, this time shifting to economic issues. Norway, in spite of its success with shipping and shipbuilding was still, on the whole, terribly poor and the 1880s were proving lean years indeed. Emigration was the only means through which many young Norwegians could find a tolerable livelihood of any sort; in some years during this decade, in which emigration reached its high tide, net population actually dropped for that reason. Norway's basic economic problems at this time was its underdeveloped domestic economy. It simply did not produce amply or diversely for its own people, and what it did not produce for itself it obviously had to import or else go without; that included most kinds of manufactured goods. Thus it was exceedingly vulnerable to the least weakening in its export trade.
At the time Sweden, too, was relatively underdeveloped economically, although it had become better equipped industrially than Norway was. To promote and encourage the development of indigenous industry, the Swedish government in 1888 adopted a policy of very high tariffs, and it directed those tariffs quite as much against Norwegian imports as against those of other nations. Perhaps there was some element of satisfaction in this move, some glee in retaliating against Norway for having once rejected customs union and for having won the great tussle over responsible government. Sweden was the chief export customer for the very few kinds of manufactured goods that Norway did produce, chiefly cloth being made by an incipient modern textile industry centering around Bergen. That market was being abruptly cut off. The Norwegians, with an economy already so close to the bone, felt as if the bone itself were being gnawed.
The only way Norway could compensate for losses of export trade with Sweden was to increase its exports elsewhere, and the only swift and practical way of doing that was to find more customers abroad for the work of the Norwegian merchant fleet. But here Sweden had Norway in a bind.
As far as foreign affairs were concerned, Norway was still a part of Sweden. Norway had no consular representation of its own; instead, it contributed toward support of a joint consular service. Norwegians had long resented the disadvantages of this arrangement, disadvantages which were symbolized by the plight of a poor Norwegian seamen in difficulties in a foreign port, given no understanding and short shrift by an aristocratic Swedish consul. Now, when Norway needed rapid and effective consular aid to find, develop and service new markets for Norwegian cargo ships, Swedish consuls were not that interested in hustling for Norway. The gap between what Norway needed and what it was getting soon became so serious economically that the Storting, in 1892, voted to withhold its consular contributions to the Stockholm government and unilaterally establish a service of its own.
The king vetoed the measure. But since he was a constitutional monarch of the two countries, his veto had to be countersigned by the ministers of the Norwegian government. In the past, that requirement had presented no problem, but now the ministers were men chosen by the Storting and responsible to it. They refused to sign. This was a new kind of impasse. The king dissolved the government and appointed a new cabinet, its members drawn from the minority unionist party. But the Storting refused to countersign this arrangement, and the new government could not govern a Storting and a people who would not be governed by it. Its attempts to rule were a shambles. In Sweden public opinion against Norway was again rising alarmingly, and again there were rumors of war.
Now it was the Norwegians' turn to realize they had only two choices; either they could pay up their contribution and try to negotiate more attention to their needs or else they could make war to try to establish complete independence. The reason complete independence was the only alternative to the status quo was that Norway had already made a tentative stab at establishing its own consuls in Germany, but Germany had refused to recognize them because its diplomatic relations were with Sweden, not Norway. The response, Norwegians knew, would be the same in all other countries.
Norway chose the peaceful course. It paid up and negotiated. But no agreement could be reached, and the talks eventually broke down entirely. Tempers in both countries grew uglier. The Norwegians embarked on a strong rearmament program and strengthened fortification along their border. Again, war looked imminent.
This time it was Sweden's turn to back off. It did so by suggesting a compromise permitting separate consular services under a single diplomatic staff. On this basis, negotiations began again, but in reality the Swedish position against Norway was hardening and the talks got nowhere. As frustration in Norway mounted, the issue of the consuls escalated in almost everyone's mind there into the issue of complete independence. Even the party of the unionists, who felt betrayed by the Swedish negotiators, was now ready to embrace secession.
The Storting organized itself into a coalition government representing both parties, and chose as prime minister Christian Michelsen, a Bergen lawyer and shipowner. Plebiscites were called in Norway, great demonstrations were mounted, the country was in an uproar, and in the spring of 1905 the Storting unanimously passed a bill demanding thoroughly separate consular services with the implication that the issue was no longer negotiable.
The form the crisis took this time was a curious legalistic deadlock, a kind of Gordian knot. When the king vetoed the Storting's bill, the ministers -as expected- refused to countersign his veto and resigned. All that was somewhat familiar. But this time the king refused to accept the resignations because that move had resulted in such a mess the previous time it was employed. In refusing, he said, "No other cabinet can now be formed."
The words of the king meant one thing in Sweden -that Norway must now knuckle under- but in Norway they were chosen to mean something different. The prime minister, Michelsen, who was much admired among his countrymen for his nimble mind and efficiency, quick-wittedly used the king's remark to mean that the king himself had dissolved the union between Norway and Sweden, and proceeded deftly to slice through the tangle in which affairs had been left. His argument was that the king could exercise his royal functions only constitutionally, which was true, and that since this meant that he could exercise them only through a cabinet, he himself -by announcing that none could be formed- had declared he could no longer rule Norway and so had dissolved the union himself. This went over as a great idea in the Storting. It promptly passed a resolution, on June 7, 1905, announcing that Norway's union with Sweden was at an end and then proceeded to act as the government of a fully sovereign state.
Of course, that did not quite end the matter. As may be supposed, a tense time followed. The Swedish Riksdag (Parliament) refused to admit that the union had been dissolved and countermanded what the Storting had done. But once again, Sweden recognized that the question was one of war or peace. Denmark, Russia and France all urged Sweden to show moderation, and Sweden proceeded to resolve matters in this fashion: if the Norwegians would agree to meet certain conditions, then Sweden would be willing to negotiate for dissolution. The chief conditions were that Norway should dismantle its border forts, that a military neutral zone should be crated along the southern frontier between Norway and Sweden, and that Norway must hold a referendum to see whether its people actually did want dissolution.
The conditions were agreeable to Norway. Indeed, the government had already arranged for a referendum to take place in August. It produced a huge outpouring of votes, overwhelmingly in favor of independence, and negotiations between the two governments were promptly started. They were complex and difficult, but now Sweden had accepted the fact that Norway had seceded; and Norway, for its part, recognized that it was being dealt with in good faith. In this anticlimactic atmosphere the arrangements moved so rapidly and were accepted in both countries so readily that before the year was out, all had been settled.
The Norwegians invited Carl, grandson of the king of Denmark and son-in-law of the king of England, to be their constitutional monarch. He took the medieval name of Haakon, and inspiration suggested by one of the poet Wergeland's apostrophes to Norway, poured out so many years before: "With what joy thy towers would shine, saw they Haakon's age again." He was crowned in Trondheim Cathedral, saved from destruction so many years before by Munich. Everybody's labor, whether for symbol or substance, was bearing fruit. "The feelings of relief and of enhanced self-respect," a historian has written, "were comparable to those which other peoples associate with the winning of a major war. It would hardly be too much to say that many Norwegians thought of the whole of their history since 1319 as a wandering in the wilderness from which they had now emerged into the Promised Land."
It is difficult to say whether the outcome did greater honor to Sweden or to Norway. Is seems to me that it did honor not only to both but also to civilization.
The separation, as it turned out, has harmed neither country. On the contrary, it probably helped them both, economically as well as politically. The conflict itself, which could only have grown uglier and more dangerous, was disposed of. Sweden was certainly better off economically in the years to follow than it would have been if it had to carry on its back a poverty-stricken province, as might well have been the case.
Norway had its ups and downs. Things seemed to start out well economically after independence, with the beginnings of the development of electric-power, chemical and metallurgical industries. But no sooner did Norway's economy begin to blossom noticeably than the government became too ambitious in its social programs, which soon outran the economy's capacity to pay for them. In an attempt to support them anyhow, the government took to printing money exuberantly and a terrible inflation followed, much intensifying the general inflation which Norway, like all Europe, experienced during World War I. The exaggerated Norwegian inflation raged form 1916 to 1920. The government then retrenched, and by 1928 the effects had been overcome. But after three brief years of prosperity and stability, the world-wide depression engulfed Norway. Norway's recovery, however, began earlier than that of most countries. By 1934 the economy was markedly improved, and Norway's economic development has been both rapid and many-sided since. In the course of developing their economy, the Norwegians have displayed an inventiveness and verve that it is hard to imaging they could have exercised had they and their government been preoccupied instead with bitter political grievances and associated economic frustrations.
Today Sweden and Norway are each other's best customers. The two cooperate as equals in many fields. They have joint customs inspections, have abolished passport requirements for each other's citizens, have coordinated their university standards and their social insurance arrangements, have established a common labour market, and they engage in various joint scientific projects and some joint industrial ventures. But when they want to differ, they do. For instance, Sweden, like Denmark, has become a member of the European Economic Community, but Norway has not. Its government favored membership, but its people turned it down in a referendum.
Here in Toronto, where I live, in two different office buildings about a mile apart, are to be found two trade commissions, on Norwegian, on Swedish. To me, the two establishments seem more than busy, competently run commercial offices, staffed by cheerful, helpful people. To me, they seem the concrete evidence of a miracle -a secession achieved without armed rebellion, without terrorism, without the military defeat of a former ruler.
In the Swedish office I recently asked one of the civil servants how Swedes really feel toward Norwegians today: "Do they harbor feelings of resentment about the secession?" He looked shocked at the idea. "Of course not, he said. "We make jokes" -and he blushed. "The same jokes you tell in Canada about Newfies (Naïve Newfoundlanders.). But they are good neighbors, good customers, our best, and they have made a fine country for themselves." Then he added reflectively, "We wanted them to like being with us, but..." and he shook his head.
There are many obvious differences between Quebec and Norway and between Canada and Sweden. For instance, Quebec is much richer and better developed economically than Norway was at the time when Norwegian sovereignty hung in the balance. Quebec got responsible government earlier than Norway, and more easily. Quebec's population is lager than Norway's; and Canada's -even without Quebec- is a much larger than Sweden's.
But there are many similarities too. Quebec, for many years, has been trying to take more of its affairs into its own hands. These moves, as in Norway, jumble symbols with substance; demands for responsibility with claims to cultural equality; economic concerns with political preoccupations. An intricate, pervasive drive is at work in Quebec, as it was in Norway. The slogan of Quebec's quiet revolution, "Masters in our own house," was not invoked in Norway, as far as I know; yet that is clearly what Norwegian struggle was all about.
Canada, for its part, is similar to Sweden in its recoil against the idea of civil war or use of military force to keep Quebec in its place. Canadians are similar to Swedes in not wanting a separation, and in wanting the people of Quebec to take pride in being Canadian. They are also like Swedes in being impatient with Quebec's never-ending train of demands. But the government in Ottawa, like the government in Stockholm, is a voice of moderation in comparison with the anger and hostility against Quebec vented in such places a letters-to-the-editor columns, many newspaper editorials, or on the part of some of the provincial governments. If Quebec does continue a course of moving toward independence, I have and unshakable feeling that Canada's behavior, like Sweden's, will do honor to civilization.
Chapter 3 references:
The historical information on Noway and Sweden if from the following:
A History of Modern Norway 1814-1972, by T.K. Derry (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1973).
A Brief History of Norway, by John Midgaard (Oslo, Johan Grundt Tanum Forlag, 1969).
A History of Norway, by Keren Larsen (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1948).
One Hundred Norwegians, edited by Sverre Mortensen and Per Vogt (Oslo, Johan Grundt Tanum Forlag, 1955).

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I strongly recommend the rest of the book. It is available in many Canadian public libraries.
Edit: 2013-02-19, the paper version of the book was republished in 2011. Sadly, no electronic version yet.

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