Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Norway: May 17th 2011

Norway is a neighbouring country with which the inhabitants of the western part of the British Isles have been entangled since Viking times, but about which they know little.

Rich in oil and gas, with one of the highest standards of living in the world, increasingly multi-ethnic, a transformation which is bringing its own strains, it has long outgrown its roots as a country of simple farmers and fishermen, and its buoyant service orientated economy now offers employment to many Swedes, who were formerly the dominant people of Scandinavia.

Although I feel, probably mistakenly, that I know the country well, this was my first experience of Constitution Day.

I had expected the procession of brass bands, school children and traditional regional costumes, but I was surprised by the large number of spectators wearing suits and ties.

I cannot conceive of any national celebration in the UK in which people would turn out on the streets wearing what used to be known in my youth as "Sunday best."

So what's this May 17th all about?

In 1814 Norway was ceded to the Swedish crown by Denmark, which had been on the losing side in the Napoleonic wars. In an effort to avoid the loss of Norway, the Crown Prince of Denmark-Norway, Christian Frederik, the resident viceroy in Norway, called a national assembly. This assembly produced a constitution, a very liberal document for its time, which was signed on 17th May 1814.

The constitution eschewed the republicanism of the United States and created a constitutional monarchy, with Christian Frederik as the first King. The lack of international backing, particularly from Great Britain, sealed Norway's fate, and after a very short military campaign it bowed to the inevitable: Christian Frederik abdicated, and the Storting unanimously elected Charles XIII of Sweden as King Charles II of Norway.

With minor amendment only the constitution remained in place after the acceptance of the Swedish King, and so it remained after the attainment of full independence in 1905, accomplished by the deposition of the Swedish monarchy and the election of a new King and Queen, Haakon VII, formerly Prince Carl of Denmark and Iceland, and his wife, formerly Princess Maud of Wales, grand daughter of Queen Victoria, cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm and sister of King George V. It is then the oldest single document constitution in Europe, second only to that of the United States in the world as a whole. I can understand why, in a fast changing and often bewildering world, it means so much to Norwegians.

For anyone interested The Foreigner , an English language web site for non-Norwegians living in Norway, provides an interesting perspective on the country, and an excellent account of the historical background and meaning of the 17th May celebrations.

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