Norway, of course, is one of the richest countries on the planet – in part due to its sovereign wealth fund which holds a share of the oil profits from Norwegian waters and stands at $1.3 trillion. It is also one of the most egalitarian, with a strong sense of social cohesion. Norway celebrates its national day on May 17, as a community event, with picnics, sports and festivities.
But Norway has only been an independent country since 1905 – for 500 years before that it was not. First it was in a union with Denmark and then with Sweden. In both cases Norway was the junior partner.
When the country finally had a referendum, the question asked was whether people supported the step the Parliament had already taken to dissolve the union with Sweden. Support was virtually unanimous.
There was no concern then about how Norway would manage its border with Sweden, or about what currency it would use. In fact it continued to be part of a Scandinavian monetary union with both Denmark and Sweden for the next two decades. The borders between the countries continue to be passport-free. Norway is not in the EU but it is an associate member of the Schengen Zone that allows free movement (before it was in Schengen it was in something called the “Nordic Passport Area’). Norway is in EFTA, the European Free Trade Area, but not in the Customs Union. That means there are sporadic customs checks on goods vehicles but that around 30,000 people a day travel seamlessly between Norway and Sweden to work.
So what were Norway’s reasons for breaking away from what many historians regard as successful Union with a neighbouring country?
Here we take a look at three of the motivating factors that caused Norway to seek independence.
#1 Lack of control over foreign policy
Norway was a junior partner in its unions with Denmark between 1521 and 1814 and then Sweden from 1814 to 1905. Although Norway retained its own national identity in some ways, it was unable to set foreign policy. As a result, Norway was often caught up in wars that were not of its making.
The best example is when Norway was transferred from Denmark to Sweden in the Napoleonic Wars. Denmark-Norway at that time had a significant navy. Britain was concerned this could end up in the hands of Napoleon and so demanded the fleet. The Danish King refused and the British navy mounted a massive attack on Copenhagen from the sea, destroying 1,000 buildings in a single night.
The Danes were on the losing side of the war. When the Swedish King helped the British to defeat Napoleon a few years later, he demanded Norway as a reward – and he was handed it in a treaty after the Battle of Leipzig. There were no Norwegians present when the deal was done and Norwegians weren’t even informed until some time later.
The Norwegians were outraged. They demanded to be independent instead and to elect their own head of state, ratifying a Norwegian Constitution on May 17, 1814. In the short War of Norwegian Independence that followed, the British navy blockaded Norway to prevent supplies from getting in. Despite winning some battles, the Norwegians were overwhelmed by the Swedish army, and they had no international support.
The Norwegians eventually signed a compromise deal where they kept their own Parliament and administration but became subjects of the Swedish Crown. They also had to hand over control over foreign policy to Sweden.
For almost a century under Swedish rule, Norwegians felt they were represented abroad and on international bodies by people who knew little about Norway and who didn’t understand what Norwegians wanted. When the Norwegian Parliament eventually decided to set up its own consular service, they were at first overruled by the Swedish King and that was the point at which Norway finally declared independence. They held a referendum where almost everyone who voted supported the decision of the Parliament.
#2 Frustration with colonial rule
Despite officially retaining its own separate identity, when Norway was subject to the Danish Crown from 1521 to 1814, it became a puppet state. This period is sometimes called the “400 year night”, because the centre of power and control moved to Copenhagen. Some historians point to the fact that the two countries together did become more prosperous, but Norway consistently struggled for more autonomy.
Norway was not initially in favour of the Reformation, for example, but this was imposed on it. The Crown seized church lands and valuables which were transferred to Denmark’s ownership. Widespread resistance was defeated. Danish was imposed as the official language.
The Danish Crown became absolutist and hereditary. It ruled over Denmark with the aid of sheriffs, military officers and government officials who were all answerable to Copenhagen instead of to local authorities. Norway was subdivided into districts, each of which had to produce a certain number of men to fight for the Danish King.
In order to fund its wars, the Danish Crown eventually started to sell parcels of the land it had seized from the Church to Norwegian farmers, increasing the number of people who owned their own smallholdings.
While recognising that this period was one where Norway did make some advances, many Norwegians see it as a time when Norwegians were unable to progress in the government, law and administration of their own country. Many went abroad instead. Many Norwegians became seafarers. Large numbers went off to the New World – the lack of opportunity at home as well as disagreement with religious laws for some, led to a brain drain.
Under Swedish rule, May 17 the date of the Constitution signing became an annual independence rally. Celebrating it was banned by the Swedes – but after soldiers broke up a rally at the “Battle of the Square” in 1829, it was allowed and became increasingly seen as independence day.
#3 Control of their own assets
In the past, Norway was often portrayed as a poor country, on the periphery of Europe, mountainous and hard to farm, full of narrow-minded people with backward notions. Its people were looked down on by the Danish and Swedish elites who governed it for centuries.
The reality was far different. Norway has a wealth of natural resources and it has often been at the forefront of technological innovation to make use of these. It was quick to embrace mechanised methods of harvesting timber and its forests were vital in providing ships for centuries; it was at the forefront of hydro-electric power which was a valuable energy export before oil; it was one of the first countries to provide electric street lighting.
Increasingly, Norwegians wanted to have more control over their own assets. They felt there was an unfair transfer of wealth going on. Towards the end of the Union with Denmark, about two-thirds of Norway’s audited annual national income was transferred to Copenhagen each year. Norway was also forced to pay the debts that the Danish Crown had assigned to it in the treaty that ended the Napoleonic war, even though the Norwegian Parliament never ratified this debt. They tried to refuse to pay but were threatened with military attack so they paid up.
In trade, the terms that were set by the Danish and later Swedish Governments, were often seen as unfavourable to Norwegians. When it came to monopolies, Government contracts, and the granting of rights to exploit Norway’s assets, many Norwegians grew frustrated with what they saw as the lack of a level playing field, and that also fed into the desire for independence.
Today, Norway ranks as the best place to live in the world, on the UN Human Development Index Report, which takes into account a number of factors like life satisfaction, health, gender equality, financial security and education. It has made good use of its independence.
When they finally took the step of having a referendum on the issue, there was no disagreement over arrangements as to borders, currency or trade. Norwegians had the confidence to believe they could they work those things out successfully – and they did.