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Norway's challenge to Scots as referendum approaches

There I was in the TV lounge of the Comfort Hotel in Bergen trying to hear David Dimbleby and Alex Salmond bicker on the euro-results programme when the hipsterish concierge asked me what on earth I was watching.

He didn't know that there were any elections happening.

Forgiveable, perhaps, since Norway isn't in the EU. Mind you, he did know about the Scottish independence referendum and he just assumed the result would be Yes. I mean, why have a referendum if you don't know what the result is going to be? You see, when Norway held its referendum on independence from Sweden in 1905, the yes vote was 99.95%.

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Only 184 Norwegians voted no. They didn't make the mistake of holding an independence referendum before people were ready for it. They won't have another referendum on membership of the EU in a hurry either.

The majority of Norwegians wish to remain out of Europe, especially as Brussels austerity has thrown millions out of work and threatens to turn the great European project into a playground for racists and extremists.

Tory politicians like Liam Fox used to come to Norway to celebrate its euroscepticism. But they stopped when they learned that Norway stays out of the EU not because it thinks Brussels is socialist but because it thinks it is too free market.

It wants to protect its Nordic model of state industries, collective trades union bargaining, high public spending and high personal and corporate taxes. Norwegians pay 28% to 48% income tax and believe they receive value for money. Everything works.

Yes, Norwegians can seem smug and conformist, as lampooned in the TV series Lilyhammer. Heaven mend you if you don't recycle, clear your pavements and pay your taxes. But Norwegians have a lot to be smug about. They didn't suffer many ill effects from the banking crisis that almost wrecked the eurozone.

They have full employment, growth at 3.5%, and GDP of $60,000 per head. They believe their welfare model insulated them from the Europe's Great Recession because people weren't thrown out of work en masse. Wealth is more evenly distributed so there is more demand in the shops. New business formation is much higher as a result.

Of course, some argue that welfare costs are unsustainably high and worry that the oil is running out. But since Norway didn't spend its oil revenue (stashing it instead in a mega state pension fund which now owns 2% of all the world's shares) they're not too worried.

In Britain, we blew Scottish oil wealth on Margaret Thatcher's tax cuts and building the financial services industry. It's hard not to be bitter at the way Scotland's oil wealth was asset stripped. Scotland gave away its hydrocarbons in a fit of misguided philanthropy, receiving little in return except unemployment cheques and Tory lectures about being subsidy junkies. But here's a thought: what if Scots prefer being subsidy junkies to living the Norwegian way?

Building an independent country, like building a business, is hard work. It requires a stubborn confidence and a self-reliance that Scots may have lost after generations of living in grey housing estates.

If Scotland could become Norway overnight, I suspect there would be a landslide for Yes in September. But most Scots are realists and know that being Norwegian isn't that easy. I'm not entirely sure we have the will for this kind of thing any more - if we ever had it.

I've been coming to Norway for more than 30 years, since the BBC first sent me to research a documentary on how the country deals with "remote areas". I discovered that Norway doesn't do "remote".

Windy glens and rocky coasts that in Scotland would be empty have people living in them. There are only five million people in this vast country but they seem to be everywhere, largely because transport, by boat, road or rail takes you everywhere. The best way to grasp this is to take the seven- hour train journey from Oslo to Bergen via Flam (a railway line that rises to 4,000 feet, almost as high as Ben Nevis).

This is one of the great train journeys of the world and an extraordinary feat of engineering, like building a railway across the entire Cairngorm plateau.

You wonder why they bothered, until you notice that, even in the remotest areas of Norway, there are scattered villages and hamlets built of sturdy Norwegian wood. These are the famous Norwegian "huts"; only we're not talking garden sheds. These are often very large and substantial dwellings in places where only sheep go in Scotland.

This isn't an accident. It is a result of conscious policy to keep the country inhabited. Norway is an industrialised country but people were not cleared off the land, as they were in Scotland. There are fewer large estates, apart from government-owned plantations, and owners of farmable land were required by law to live on it.

Powerful local councils still have to approve any large land sales, and non-citizens are often excluded from buying. Tell Norwegians that 500 families own half of Scotland and jaws drop in amazement.

Land reform should be high on the Scottish political agenda but it isn't, and there is a reason. People were removed from the countryside in Scotland very efficiently by the 18th century "improvers".

Like it or not, Scotland is an urban society. Neither the SNP nor Labour see any votes in serious land reform, which is why no-one takes up the proposal by the former adviser to Alex Salmond, Alex Bell, to introduce land value taxation. And Norwegian culture is, to some extent, conditioned by its system of land tenure.

Norwegians famously have rather small town attitudes, because there are lots of small towns. They are communitarian and disciplined because they had to be to survive in an often hostile environment. Scots prefer cities and pubs and holidays in Spain.

This is why yesterday's sterile exchange about the "price" of independence (will it leave Scots £1000 better off or £1400 worse off?) seems so pointless. Scots voters have rightly stopped listening. They're well enough informed to understand the challenges and opportunities of self-government. They can see from the Nordic countries what Scotland could be like. But why take the risk?

I don't want to contribute to our national vice of negativity but the question in September isn't really about the economics of monetary union or whether an independent Scotland would be in deficit or surplus.

It is about whether Scots have the determination and self-confidence to strike out on their own and take charge of their own affairs; or whether they would prefer a managed decline and an an apparently easier life, consoled by the cynicism and self-loathing showcased by the Unionist "Just Say Naw" campaign.

Iain Macwhirter will be taking his Road to Referendum book tour to Edinburgh tonight, at Summerhall from 7pm.

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