One of Scotland’s largest neighbours has just voted for independence. I don’t mean England, or Ireland, or Scandinavia, but a country which is bigger than all of these combined. And I use the term “neighbour” loosely, because it is a good few hundred miles across the Atlantic from us, and very few readers will have ever been there.
Greenlanders voted by 3-1 for almost total independence last week. I say “almost”, because while they don’t get control of defence or foreign policy, they get control of just about everything else. 32 areas of government will be handed over to them. Every political party, but one, in Greenland backed the “yes” vote. Who couldn’t sympathise with this statement that senior politician Hans Jakob Helms made?
“Home rule was a compromise, it’s a simple fact that home rule has reached its limit and there’s a need for more room for self-government.”
Applied to Scotland, it appears that even the majority of Unionists support this position. The result makes Greenlandic independence pretty much inevitable.
Greenland’s road to independence is a bizarre one. A colony of Denmark for three hundred years, its population is tiny – a mere 57,000 (less than Guernsey), but if it gains full independence, it will be the 13th largest state in the world. 80% of the place is covered in ice, and there is no road network to speak of. People get around by boats or planes. There are about a dozen settlements, mostly tiny, scattered around the island. Traditionally, some of them have had almost nothing to do with one another, just because of the sheer distances involved. It is the largest island in the world – if you don’t count Australia – at eight times the size of Great Britain. At one end, it is near the North Pole, and at the other, the same latitude as parts of Shetland – there are even some trees there. Technically part of North America, its size and remoteness, makes it almost a continent in its own right.
80% of the people who live in Greenland are Inuit (Eskimos), only 12% are Danes. Under the terms of the referendum, Greenlandic will replace Danish as the language of government. The native Greenlanders are an obviously non-European people, still tribal to an extent, and mainly nomadic in the recent past. The native Greenlanders have massive social problems including a degree of permanent unemployment, bad diet, alcoholism, drug abuse and even AIDS. The suicide rate is also extremely high. While the traditional Inuit lifestyle was a difficult and harsh one, the modern disillusionment and substance abuse are classic results of colonialism, and can be found in places such as widely separated as Peru and Tibet, as well as parts of Australia and the USA. By voting “yes”, the Greenlanders have displayed the maturity and self-confidence that they require for a happier future. Greenlandic is now the only official language – even though it has fewer speakers than Scottish Gaelic.
However, Greenland already has some serious problems which are global in nature. One of these is climate change, something impossible to deal with at a purely local level. Greenland features prominently in Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth with good reason. If its ice cap melts, the sea level may rise by twenty five feet everywhere, drowning whole cities and nations. Another theory claims that if it melts, then the Gulf Stream will be set into reverse, and Europe will experience another Ice Age. Neither of these are theories that I’d like to see proven. Further oil drilling and mining will provide jobs and money for the Greenlandic economy, but they also threaten the hunting and fishing many Inuit still rely on, and poison the island’s fragile environment permanently. Greenland’s economy is much less diversified than Scotland’s, and subsidised to the tune of £400 million by Denmark, but the alternatives may prove simply too costly.
If it is not careful, Greenland also risks replacing Denmark with the USA. The island played a surprisingly strategic role in both WW2 and the Cold War. The Americans unsuccessfully tried to buy Greenland off the Danes for $100,000,000. In 1953, the Danes allowed them to set up the Thule base in the far north of the island. It was the most northerly American base anywhere, and allowed the US to monitor Soviet activity in the Arctic. With shades of Britain’s Diego Garcia – in 1999, the Danish High Court ruled that the base was on Inuit land, and that the inhabitants had been illegally evicted. Shortly after this ruling, it also emerged that a B52 had crashed near there in 1968. It had been carrying H-bombs, and an estimated 1,700 people were exposed to radiation. The base is still there. Some people argue that an independent Greenland would be unable to defend itself, but its relationship with the USA is going to be one sided from the outset.
But what Greenland has done is brave, and we should respect them for it. As one Welsh blog http://www.british-nats-watch.blogspot.com/ puts it –
“Now, if Greenland, a nation of 57,000 people, speaking what many of our fellow-country men would probably call ‘a silly language which nobody speaks’, has the confidence to have more power, what the hell is stopping Wales?”
When it comes to self-determination, the Nordic countries have a much better record than most. I suspect there are several reasons for this, one of them being that it is much easier for the likes of Greenland to deal with a nation of several million, than one of tens or hundreds of millions. Secondly, the remoteness of many parts of the Nordic countries meant that it was more practical for a number of decisions to be taken locally to begin with. Denmark’s other colonies, such as the now independent Norway and Iceland, or the nearly independent Faroe Islands, all neighbours of Scotland, have been given much fairer hearings by Copenhagen, than they would have done from London. For example, since WWII, the population of the Faroe Islands has doubled, while that of the Shetland Islands has halved. It’s worth remembering that Greenland got its parliament in 1979, the very year that Scotland’s own vote for an assembly was sabotaged. Since then, Greenland has never looked back. Scotland, on the other hand, is only just getting over that defeat.
A Short History of Greenland
The first people arrived in Greenland over four thousand years ago, although it has not been continuously inhabited since then. It is thought that the ancestors of the Inuit arrived in about 1200.
Southern Greenland’s European connection goes as far back as 980, when it was discovered and settled by the Norse. Their numbers were never particularly great. By the 15th century, Greenland’s white population appears to have died out, due to worsening climate, unsuitable farming methods which eroded the thin soil, and conflict with Inuit who came in from the north. They did not leave much of a legacy, other than a few ruins, and a mere 5% of Greenlandic DNA.
The Europeans returned in the early 18th century with disastrous consequences. The missionary Hans Egede heard stories in Norway of the Norse settlement in Greenland, and decided to find out whether it still existed. He established Godthåb (Nuuk), the capital, and set about converting the natives and wrote down their language for the first time. He also translated the Bible – an incredible feat as Greenlandic lacked words for “bread”, “sheep”, “wine” and other important Christian imagery: his version of the Lord’s Prayer includes the surreal line – “Give us today our harbour seal.”
Within a few years, a smallpox epidemic had wiped out large numbers of Inuit, and their shamans were being tried for witchcraft. The Europeans’ intensive hunting, fishing and whaling made it harder for the Inuit to obtain food, and some of them were also abducted or raped by sailors. By the end of the 18th Century, Greenland was an official Danish colony.
During the 19th century, the first newspaper in Greenlandic appeared, and the first district assemblies. In 1911, two regional assemblies were established, one for the north and one for the south. It was not until 1951 that they were merged. These assemblies were not a form of home rule – they were more like local councils, and all their business was conducted in Danish.
In the late 19th century, a Greenlander actually reached Scotland by kayak after being blown off course. He died soon afterwards, but his boat can still be seen in a museum.
In the early 20th century, the USA and Canada claimed parts of Greenland. In 1946, the USA attempted to buy all of it from Denmark, but the Danes refused. In the 1930s, Norway laid claim to a section of east Greenland, but the Permanent Court of International Justice ruled in Denmark’s favour. In 1951, Denmark and the US signed a defence treaty, and the Thule base was established two years later.
By 1953, Greenland was no longer officially a Danish colony, and was allowed to elect MPs to the Danish parliament. Proper welfare and medical programmes were initiated, and most of the population started to move into towns. Greenland’s integration with Denmark meant it became part of the EEC in 1973, even though 70% of Greenlanders voted against joining it in the referendum.
In 1978, Greenlanders voted for devolution, and a year later, a 31 seat parliament was set up. All Danish place names were replaced by their Greenlandic versions. In 1982, 53% of Greenlanders voted to leave the EEC, while Denmark itself stayed in. This put Greenland in a strange political position, but not a unique one – the Isle of Man, Bermuda, the Faroe Islands, Canary Islands and Madeira are amongst those nations currently outside the EU, but still controlled by members of it.
In 1985, Greenland’s flag was designed, and in 1996, the international Arctic Council, an environmental body, was established, with Greenland as a founder member.
In November, 2008, three quarters of Greenlanders voted “yes”…