Gissurarson: the Nordic Conservative-Liberal Tradition

Anders Chydenius

While American and European leftwingers often single out Sweden and the other Nordic countries as examples of successful socialism, in fact there is a strong conservative-liberal tradition there, embodied in institutions and articulated by able and persuasive thinkers, RNH Academic Director, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, argued in a talk to a conference of Nordic conservative students in Oslo 21 May 2022. He pointed out that Snorri Sturluson had in Heimskringla, his history of the Norwegian kings, expressed sympathy with the ancient ideas that kings were subject to the same laws as their subject and that they could be deposed if they violated those laws. Indeed, in the speech he composed in the name of an Icelandic farmer, Snorri even suggested that it was best to have no king but the law. Again, the Fenno-Swedish writer Anders Chydenius presented a theory about the mutual benefit from trade, eleven years before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published. It was also little known, Gissurarson added, that the 1814 Eidsvoll Constitution of Norway, the most liberal constitution in Europe at the time and still in force, was heavily influenced by two personal friends and disciples of Adam Smith, the Anker Brothers.


According to Gissurarson, the conservative-liberal tradition could be defined as the support of private property, free trade, and limited government, combined with a respect for spontaneously developed traditions. Gissurarson mentioned the liberal Nordic statesmen of the nineteenth century who implemented wide-ranging and sweeping liberal reforms, Johan August Gripenstedt in Sweden, Anton Martin Schweigaard in Norway and many others, and the strong liberal tradition in Swedish economics in the first half of the twentieth century, defined and developed by Gustav Cassel, Eli Heckscher, and Bertil Ohlin. Many Nordic thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were also individualists even if they could perhaps not be characterised as conservative liberals, for example N. F. S. Grundtvig, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Georg Brandes, and Knut Wicksell. In Gissurarson’s own country Iceland, Brandes and Ibsen made a great impact, and Cassel inspired Jon Thorlaksson, the founder of the Independence Party. Gissurarson argued that the relative success on most criteria of the Nordic countries was despite, and not because of, the political dominance of social democrats in the twentieth century. It could be attributed to a firm tradition of the rule of law, including the protection of private property, a commitment to free trade, and a high level of trust and social cohesion, while the strong conservative-liberal tradition had acted as an intellectual and political constraint on socialist schemes.

Scruton. Photo: Pete Helme.

The panel in which Gissurarson participated was moderated by philosopher Øyvind J.V. Evenstad. The conference was sponsored by the Brussels think tank New Direction and the Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation and mainly devoted to the ideas of British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton who passed away in January 2020. The topics discussed in panels reflected his many and diverse interests: sexuality, courtship, and marriage; Western civilisation; the crisis of modern architecture in Europe; green conservatism; Nordic conservatism; and sovereignty and the nation state from a European perspective. Professor Gissurarson recalled his conversations with Sir Roger and pointed out that over time he became more sympathetic to Friedrich A. von Hayek’s political position, as could be seen in his contribution, ‘Hayek and Conservatism’, to the Cambridge Companion to Hayek (2007). Hungarian Professor Ferenc Hörcher gave a talk at the end of the conference about the life and legacy of Sir Roger. Another highlight of the conference was when painter Øde Nerdrum gave a keynote talk about Western civilisation. The singer Countess Elizabet Torolphi Mörner entertained the participants at the closing dinner, with Ase Mathiesen Palm on the piano. On that occasion, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, former Prime Minister of Iceland and an admirer of Sir Roger Scruton’s work, gave the after-dinner speech. The conference was ably organised by Petter Kirkeholmen, Knut Haraldsen, and Haakon Teig, with around 150 paying participants. It was taped and is available online.

Gissurarson Slides in Oslo 21 May 2022

Photo: Robert Tyler.

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