The development of sovereign and democratic states. Norway and Sweden

Essay 2008 8 Pages

Politics - Political Systems - General and Comparisons


The Nordic countries developed as nation states from the beginning of the 19th century.

Choose two of them and compare their development as sovereign and democratic states.


From the beginning of the 19th century, the Nordic countries (mostly only meaning Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, but often also including Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Åland, which are under home rule), also called Norden, have developed as nation-states. Although these countries seem to be very similar at first sight, one will find many differences with a closer look, and a comparison between them can be quite interesting. Another reason is that Norden are always seen “as something non-European: non-Catholic; anti-imperialist, non-colonial; non-exploitative and egalitarian; peaceful; small; social democratic…” (Hjellum 2008a), so they stand out from the rest of Europe. They are very rich compared to most other European states, there is much discussion about their welfare systems, and scientists try to find an answer to the question whether a “Nordic Model” exists or not. All in all, there is a special focus on the Nordic countries, but usually researchers compare them to European countries that are quite different in their political or social system, for example. This is why a comparison within this group of states might be interesting despite all their similarities.

In this essay, I will compare the development as sovereign and democratic states of two of the Nordic countries, Norway and Sweden. But why exactly these neighboring states which seem to be so similar in most respects? The answer is based on different types of nation building that distinguishes two main ways of that process in Norden: One happened in Denmark and Sweden where the state evolved first and then afterwards the nation in it. The other way is just opposite with having the nation exist at first and shaping the state around it - this was the case in Norway, Finland, and Iceland. In order to get a better understanding of the nation building processes, I chose Norway and Sweden, so as to have one representing country for each type of nation building. The beginning of the discussion shall be a historical overview on Sweden and will then continue with Norway, whose history took place quite differently. I will continue with a discussion about the nation building process and finally analyze today’s situation concerning the current state of development, especially the sovereignty of the countries - are they really as sovereign as they seem to outsiders? The essay will finish with a summarizing conclusion.


Before starting this discussion, it is important, though, to define some technical terms which will be used a lot because they encompass the topic and purpose of this paper. Since I will talk about nation states, we first have to know what a nation is - namely “a group of people bound together by a common set of political aspirations, especially self-government and sovereignty” (Hjellum 2008a) that shares a national identity. National identity often has its roots in ethnic identity, but doesn’t necessarily have to. The state can shortly be defined as “the monopoly of force over a given territory” (Hjellum 2008a), so we can now turn to the nation state. This would then be “a sovereign state encompassing one dominant nation that it claims to embody and represent” (Hjellum 2008a). Sovereignty is referred to as the highest state-run power of rule and decision that is independent both internally and externally (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 2006). Democracy finally is a “form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989).

Historical and political outline of Sweden

Sweden is (together with Denmark) basically the core of the Nordic region and has been independent for a long time. Already in the 11th and 12th century, Sweden was home ruled and began its state formation, which makes it one of the oldest nation states in Europe. It soon became a political player which even turned to a medieval, imperial power across the Nordic countries. All this happened more or less the same way in Denmark and each of the two countries always wanted to be the more powerful one. An example to clarify this is the Great Nordic War from 1709 - 1720, when these states fought for the domination in the area. For several centuries, namely between the 16th and 19th, there were no other independent powers in Norden (Heidar 2004b: 9, 13).

Stein Rokkan, one of the best known political scientists from Scandinavia, developed a theory about the nation building process, which comprises four thresholds that are supposed to integrate the population into politics. According to his theory, all adults within a society have to become an active part of the political system and moreover, a country has to adopt democracy as the form of government. Unless these two factors have become true, the nation building process is not completed yet. The first threshold to be accomplished is legitimacy, so according to Rokkan this means freedom of expression. Universal suffrage is the second one, thus the people has to gain the right to political expression. At the third threshold, it is important to represent the voters in the political institutions in a fair way, which also means that any minorities existing in the particular society have the possibility to send representatives. This system is called the proportional representative electoral system. Now there is one threshold left and that one is just the logical conclusion of the former three: a parliamentary system has to be adopted in order to make the citizens able to influence politics - they have to reach the executive level (Heidar 2004b: 17).

Sweden passed all of Rokkan’s thresholds within roughly 100 years. Legitimacy was accomplished in 1809, representation in 1909, the parliamentary system in 1917, and finally incorporation in 1921 (Heidar, 2004b: 18). Since the 1930s, Sweden has clearly been a social democratic country: The Social Democrats were the dominating governments until the mid- 1970s (Hjellum 2008b) and after that they have still been the strongest party, but the Conservatives and lately also the Liberals gained votes in the elections. Compared to whole Europe, all the Nordic countries stand out in their social democratic character, which is shown by numerous social democratic governments. Sweden, though, has the strongest party of them and since the end of the 1980s, it has only had two legislative periods when the Social Democrats were not in power, but a coalition of the Conservatives, Liberals, Agrarians, and Christians - between 1991 and 1994 (Heidar, 2004a: 44-46, 54) and the current government, which has been in power since 2006 (Hjellum 2008b).

Historical and political outline of Norway

In contrast to Sweden, Norway always wanted to distance itself from Sweden and Denmark as the old imperial powers, so it is, just as Finland and Iceland, characterized by the “politics of independence” (Heidar, 2004b: 9). Norway was not as autonomous as Sweden during the Middle Ages, but quite the contrary as it was bound in a union with Denmark from 1536 - 1814. In 1814, though, during the tumultuous aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the Norwegian elite took advantage of a window of opportunity. The elites were influenced by several factors, among others the French Revolution, so they did not only write a constitution for Norway, but also declared independence. However, “the victorious European powers, (…), forced Norway into a union with Sweden, where the Norwegians had to accept a king with strong personal power, but were allowed to retain most of the new constitution (…)” (Heidar, 2004b: 15).



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University of Bergen
norway sweden



Title: The development of sovereign and democratic states. Norway and Sweden