Unravelling Britain’s Scandinavian Obsession

It’s almost eight years since the UK first fell for Scandinavia. By why, and how, did the obsesssion start? Could it be that we’re just very similar people…

Xander Brett

In 2012, BBC Four broadcast The Bridge. It opened British eyes to the cool chic of the cold north. IKEA’s popularity replaced John Lewis. Scotland announced a vision for independence in line with the ‘Nordic model’. We bought Volvos like never before. My love of Scandinavia began that year too. Landing in southern Norway, Scandinavia’s joie de vivre was infectious. But there were unanswered questions. Why were Brits not drawn to Canada’s liberalism? To France’s cop shows? To Germany’s minimalist design? Why was everything magic with a Nordic touch?

Five years later, I started this blog to find out. Now in its third year, and with a podcast running alongside, it’s attracted readers and listeners across the world. To me,  it seems Britain’s Scandinavian interest is strong but confused. Our lust for ‘Nordic noir’ sits alongside a love of ‘fika’ and ‘hygge’. Comforting cosiness and cold crime in one. Over the past three years, I’ve asked countless people about Britain’s obsession with Scandinavia. Rachel Khoo told me how she feeds an interest in Nordic food. Alexander McCall Smith explained Brits’ love of Nordic literature. Someone who summed it up best, though, was the talk show host Fredrik Skavlan. Back in February, he told me how the Nordic countries are a similar set-up to the UK. “With a Norwegian and a Swede on my show,” he explained, “our differences are clear. But when I bring on a foreign guest, our differences disappear. We become a unit.” Scandinavia is capable of becoming one unit but, all too often, foreigners ignore the fact that there are three countries in the Scandinavian diaspora, not one. Norwegian may be a similar language to Swedish. Swedes may drink as much coffee as the Danes. But they are separate nations with distinct identities to match. Scandinavia is the sum of its parts, like the four corners of the United Kingdom.

The English and Danish language are similar, and driving around the north of England the place names tell of its proximity to Norway and Sweden. This is, given our Viking heritage, no coincidence. The Vikings ruled northern England for centuries and, though they left a thousand years ago, their mentality hung on. Unlike much of Continental Europe, Britain rejected the ‘flashy’ Roman Empire, accepting instead the culture of ‘minimalist Norse’. We rejected Rome’s religion too, later on. Boxed in by Ireland and France we, like Scandinavia, are a bastion of Protestantism in a Catholic continent. That ever growing uniqueness has pulled us close to the Lutheran north. You can see it in our shared admiration for simplicity. Both us and Scandinavia embrace a minimalist impression and a pragmatic mindset. Protestantism breathes the cool order we both crave.

“Both us and Scandinavia embrace a minimalist impression and a pragmatic mindset. Protestantism breathes the cool order we both crave”

It would, of course, be wrong to assume this admiration is one-way. The Scandinavians love Monty Python, Marmite and Midsomer Murders as much as we do. But rarely will a Swede tell you of their admiration to our society and politics. When I first visited Copenhagen, I was struck with how easy it was to strike up conversation with the prime minister in the street. It was symptomatic of the bonds that bind leaders and citizens. Scandinavians know their countries are the best in the world. With their national days and strings of flags, they’re not afraid to show it. But while they count their blessings, it seems at times we Brits are almost too jealous of Scandinavia’s success. Sometimes we even wish it ill. This has been most apparent recently, with systemic criticism around Sweden’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. When Britain was placed in lockdown, we were envious of Sweden’s relative freedom. With each increase in cases, we longed for Sweden to join our struggle. We attack their handling of the migrant crisis to similar effect: wishing them badly to cheer us up. It’s as if when dents appear in Scandinavia’s welfare state, ours appears all more efficient.

It’s interesting that, despite our taste for Scandi drama, dishes and design, Norway, Sweden and Denmark are seldom holiday destinations. When summer hits, we head south – to Italy, France and Spain. We love these countries for their sun and sangria. It’s a different kind of love to our love of Scandinavia. Unlike Italy, France and Spain, in Scandinavia we search a more perfect version of ourselves. We’re nations of monarchies, introverts and temperamental climates. But Scandinavia has done everything just a little bit better. They’re classless, cleaner and more close-knit. We long to be Scandinavian, but we never will be. It makes Scandinavia just a little bit boring… but in a dependable sort of way.

This article has also been published in The Copenhagen Post.

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