Is the UK really in Scandinavia?

Viking boats Image copyright Thinkstock

The UK has been caught in a long tug-of-war about its identity, which will only become more intense as the EU referendum approaches.

Where does the UK belong in the world?

Is the strongest bond with major European economies like France and Germany? Or is there a stronger connection with the United States, with its free market instincts and English-speaking culture?

Or maybe we should be looking across the North Sea.

Because it's surprising how often the UK seems to be more like the Scandinavian countries than anywhere else.

This might seem a bit counter-intuitive, because the Nordic nations can feel very separate. They evoke images of chunky jumpers, dark nights, impassive detectives and depressive drinking.

Or else you might think of a high-spec welfare system with more safety features than... well, a Volvo.

It feels very different - until you start looking at international comparisons.

Northern neighbours

As an example, annual figures on overseas aid showed almost no-one fulfilled the United Nations target of 0.7% of GDP.

The exceptions were the UK and the Scandinavians.

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Image caption Denmark imposes tougher controls on refugees: Have we had an unrealistic view of Scandinavia?

But rather than thinking of this as a rather random grouping, look at the recurrent similarities.

Employment figures show the UK in the top quarter of countries in terms of people in work, bracketed alongside Scandinavian countries, with Iceland at the top of the table.

Corporation tax figures put Norway as the UK's most similar neighbour.

In a league table of internet use, the UK is in the top quarter of countries online - along with the likes of Finland, Norway, Sweden and top of the table again, Iceland.

For levels of online shopping, the UK leads the industrialised world, followed by Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

There might be a perception that the Nordic countries will be much bigger spenders on welfare, but the closest country to the UK in terms of social expenditure (as a percentage of GDP) is Norway.

Nordic nirvana

Or we might like to think of Scandinavians as some kind of super-healthy liberal elite, living in a Nordic nirvana.

But average life expectancy in the UK is 81 years, the same as Finland, with Denmark 80 and Sweden, Norway and Iceland at 82 years.

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Image caption Scandinavia - not all chunky jumpers and depressive drinking

The country closest to the UK on the proportions of people smoking is Norway.

Average paid leave in the UK is five weeks per year... the same as Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Erik Berglof, director of the London School of Economics' Institute of Global Affairs, says there is a clear "like-mindedness" between the UK and Scandinavia.

He says there have been some political attempts to cultivate this, such as the Northern Future Forum which brings together political leaders from the UK, Nordic countries and the Baltic states.

And he points to the World Values Survey, which maps beliefs and values around the globe, as showing how close the UK is to Scandinavian countries.

But as a Swede living in London, he says there can be some very outdated views.

"I've been struck by how both left and right use Scandinavian countries as a model, if not a utopia," he said.

On the left, it's used as an exemplar for a welfare system, while on the right it's used as a way of looking at welfare reform. Or in education, for poaching ideas such as free schools from Sweden.

I came, I saw, Ikea

Nordic countries are often seen as being in a different league to the UK in school standards.

But that is mostly driven by the stellar performance of Finland - Nordic not Scandinavian - in the international Pisa tests, which compare the test results of 15-year-olds.

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Image caption Sweden's education system has been tumbling down international rankings

The other Nordic countries are rather unspectacular and middle ranking, in similar positions to the UK.

If this still seems like an improbable connection, is that because we've tended to idealise the northern neighbours?

We want to think of their politics as being as clean and unfussy as an Ikea bookcase.

So it seems to go against the grain to read stories such as the Danes backing plans to confiscate the valuables of asylum seekers.

Less equal

Of course there are big differences between the UK and the Scandinavians.

Income inequality is much greater in the UK, with Nordic economies distinctive in the much narrower gap between the richest and poorest.

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Image caption There have been political attempts to promote a northern European interest group

Obesity is more common in the UK, rates of imprisonment are far higher and more is spent on defence while the university fees (at least in England) are higher than anywhere else in Europe.

In many of these areas - obesity, prison rates, defence spending and high tuition fees - there are more similarities with the US.

The US can feel familiar, because of such a shared culture in TV, film and music. But its sheer size, complexity and its social extremes means that it is often unlike anywhere else.

Whether it is health, guns or a Donald Trump rally, the US can be really very different from the UK.

Viking legacy

Carolyne Larrington, a fellow of St John's College, Oxford University and an expert on Old Norse and Old Icelandic, says there are deep historical links across the North Sea.

These connections of trade, culture and language between the north-east of England and Scandinavia, stretch back centuries.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The historic links with the Vikings are usually seen in a negative light

And there are even stronger links with Scotland, particularly further north in Shetland and Orkney.

But she says when it comes to these Nordic links - and the legacy of the Vikings - it has often been either seen in a negative light or overlooked.

For centuries, any romantic ideas of the "good old days" before the Norman invasion were seen in terms of the Saxons, rather than the Scandinavians, she says.

Now modern revisionism about the Vikings has softened their image.

Perhaps it's gone too far, she says, with some accounts now depicting them not so much as warriors as "very sensitive and spending a lot of time writing poetry".

If only they had worn chunky reindeer pattern jumpers in their longships.

Pisa test scores 2015:


12. Finland, 22. Denmark, 26. UK, 30. Norway, 38. Sweden


5. Finland, 20. UK, 27. Denmark, 31. Norway, 38. Sweden


6. Finland, 22. Norway, 23. UK, 25. Denmark, 26. Sweden