When I last week wrote about ‘Sweden in the world’, with reference to its national day, I had thought I would continue with another article this week, telling more stories and going into some further details. However, I have postponed that now, since I remembered that Sweden’s neighbour, Norway, my home country, is going to have its national day celebrations ahead of time, indeed tomorrow, before the holy month of Ramadan begins. But the actual date is 17 May. It is as unique and special to all Norwegians, including the 6-700,000 immigrants in a population of just over five million, as the American national day of the 4th of July.

In addition, the Norwegian national day is a children’s day, with all schools and local communities having processions, football matches, elegant celebrations, brass band concerts and more. Every Norwegian must be out in the sun (or rain) in the early summer weather, in new clothes, or in traditional folk dresses, being cheerful and happy, all-inclusive, and proud of their little land! I am sure that every Pakistani-Norway schoolgirl and school-boy in Oslo, waving to the King and Queen on the balcony of the Royal Palace, would not feel less Norwegian or different at all on that day, than those blue-eyed Norwegians, whose ancestors came to the land some hundred or thousand years before. Yes, most Norwegians came from somewhere else and it took time to inhabit the land near the North Pole. Today, Norway is according to the United Nations one of the best lands to live in, with abundance of natural resources, democracy, minimal corruption and small differences among people. It is a land with opportunities for all (well, almost all) and a welfare state helping those who need help temporarily or long-term.

I asked a Norwegian friend who has been a diplomat for many years, and an ambassador in at least two countries, what she thought I should write about in my article this week. We worked together, both as first secretaries at a Norwegian Embassy in Africa a quarter of a century ago; she was promoted fast and did well, and I continued with my humanitarian aid work and research. She recommended that I write about some of Norway’s historical events, indeed the two major ones – a hundred years apart – when the land gained full independence.

We should note that independence and democracy take time create; it is not something one just receives overnight once and for all; it has to created and developed. My retired ambassador-friend said that she thought people in Pakistan might like to read about such things; not only because there are some 40,000 citizens of Pakistani origin in Norway, but simply because many development aspects are general and universal, in spite of contexts and events being unique to each country. On top of it, people from different classes and regions in a land, men and women, too, may have different interpretations of events.

On 17 May 1814, Norway gained independence from Denmark, which had ruled Norway for 400 years, de facto since 1380 (but legally only from 1536). The Black Death plague in 1349-50, which hit the whole of Europe, wiped out two-thirds of the Norwegian population, which even kept declining for the next two hundred years. Norway was indeed weak and vulnerable and the proud Viking era and the Norse Empire of the seafaring people became just distant history.

Denmark-Norway, as the country was called, was formed, with its capital and all important institutions in Copenhagen, Denmark, including the only university in the land and education of the civil servants, from Norway or Danes sent up to the exotic, but a bit uncultured, rural and backward land of Norway, according to what most Danish administrators would probably think. During ‘Dansketiden’, Denmark itself took inspiration in philosophy and development from France and Germany, and the northern German provinces of Schleswig and Holstein were Danish territories that time. Denmark had squabbles, and close cooperation with Sweden, the largest of the Nordic countries.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, Denmark was on the losing side, and it had to cede land to the other neighbour, Sweden, which was on the winning side. Norway was ‘given’ to Sweden to be a junior partner in a union, with the king as head of state being in Sweden, the Foreign Office and all embassies and trade offices abroad to be Swedish, and most of the military, too. However, Norway had its own parliament and indeed its own constitution, adopted at Eidsvoll outside Oslo on 17 May 1814 – which is celebrated on Norway’s national day.

The winter wasn’t quite over in May, and a snowstorm at the Dovre mountain crossing delayed the parliament delegates from further north in the country to attend the deliberations and adoption of the constitution – which was a liberal and modern document for its time. It is still in force, yet, with many amendments over the years. One amendment was made last Tuesday, removing half of a sentence in Paragraph 5, which stated that the head of state, the King, is holy, and that he cannot be blamed or prosecuted.

Last Tuesday, the aspect about the king being holy was removed, but his immunity still remains – as it does for the head of state in most countries, and only special circumstances can take away that privilege. It is strange, though, that it took over 200 years to make the king less than holy, isn’t it? On the other hand, it was symbolic, since the king has no formal power, but is a constitutional and ceremonial head of state. Yet, his words may count and should always be above party. I remember some years ago, when the father of the current king said in a speech that he is also the immigrants’ king; it warmed our hearts. The current king, said a year or two ago that he is the king of every citizen, irrespective of land of birth, gender, sexual orientation, faith or religion, or any other differences that people make about who we are. He said that diversity was essential, and that home is where your heart is. He spoke simple words, saying the obvious, but since it was the king who uttered them, everyone listened, even the international media.

And the notion that the king should be seen as holy, yes, that has not been taken literally for long, if ever. Earlier, to refer authority to being instated by God would give additional symbolic and moral power to the leaders, not only legal power, and people would be more fearful opposing authority. It was indeed not very democratic, we would say today, but practical as seen from the leaders’ point of view, keeping control, law and order, but also delaying change, which was not in their own interest. It reminds us that development and democracy are step-by-step processes where interests differ, and where it is the people’s struggle that lead to change and progress. Leaders may be on the right side, or the wrong side, and leaders change as times and opinions change. Norwegians today are very gender conscious, but it is just a few decades ago that the constitution was changed so that a woman can he had of state of Norway. The first born of the crown prince is a girl, so when that time comes, she will be head of state of Norway, finally.

My Ambassador friend suggested I should write about the end of the union with Sweden in today’s article, notably 7 June 1905. It was a risk-taking PM in Norway who declared the union dissolved, and he and Norway got away with it, and Sweden accepted it after having thought about it for four months, till 26 October 1905. I won’t be able to write about it today. But maybe I should just say that the three Scandinavian countries are indeed different states, but they are also the closest of neighbours with deep respect and intimate cooperation, and close cooperation includes the other two Nordic countries of Finland and Iceland, and the Baltic States, too, and others. Perhaps that is a good lesson to draw, that neighbours must cooperate, even if they have their own sovereignty. In Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, most countries are small, and they depend on each other and must cooperate. True, Scandinavia could have been one country. But I think we do even better as separate countries, as long as we cooperate closely. Congratulations on the Norwegian national day – and on fair cooperation with neighbours and the world!


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.