Finland in Nato would bring the spirit of 'sisu' to the defence of democratic ideals – Harry Nimmo

Recent pronouncements from Finland’s highly regarded president, Sauli Niinistő, and its young Prime Minister Sanna Marin suggest that the wheels are very much in motion for Nato membership.

A Finnish soldier stands on top of his tank during the Arrow 22 military exercise with UK, Latvian, Estonian and US forces in Finland this month (Picture: Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP via Getty Images)
A Finnish soldier stands on top of his tank during the Arrow 22 military exercise with UK, Latvian, Estonian and US forces in Finland this month (Picture: Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP via Getty Images)

There is a political consensus that reflects the will of the people, given recent opinion polls suggesting that over 70 per cent of the Finnish public back membership of the alliance.

As one might expect, this decision has only been taken after careful deliberation. Russian statements on the “consequences” of this move have already followed in short order. The invasion of Ukraine has concentrated the minds of the Finnish people and their politicians.

The same discussions are occurring in Sweden for similar reasons – not surprising, given the two countries’ proximity and values. The two come as a bit of a double act. Indeed five per cent of the population of Finland are native Swedish speakers, who live particularly in the coastal regions.

It is thus important to both countries that this decision is taken together. Sweden has a greater tradition of neutrality which helped it avoid two world wars. War came to Finland in 1939, but not out of choice.

The fraught relations between the Russia and Finland go back well over a hundred years. A level of autonomy was ascribed to the Grand Duchy of Finland until an imposed policy of Russification in the 1890s, which fostered an incipient nationalist movement.

The Soviet revolution and the Vapaussota or “Freedom War” saw the establishment of an independent Finland in 1917. However Stalin and Molotov had other plans for the country.

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The Soviets always viewed Finland's proximity to Leningrad, today St Petersburg, as strategically untenable. Their Russian descendants take a similar view.

The Winter War of 1939/40 saw a full-scale Russian invasion where, against the odds, Finland threw back the Soviet advances but eventually had to cede ten per cent of its territory, including its second city of Viipuri.

Unlike Ukraine, Finland was entirely on its own in 1940 when their iconic leader Marshal Gustaf Mannerheim realised that a negotiated but costly settlement bought time to ensure survival.

This realistic approach may be out of reach in Ukraine. Winston Churchill said of Finland in 1940: “We cannot tell what the fate of Finland may be, but no more mournful spectacle could be presented than… this splendid northern race… worn down…. by the dull brutish force of overwhelming numbers.” The Finns understand what is going on in Ukraine.

Finland preserved their independence at the cost of territorial losses, reparations and enforced neutrality during the Cold War. The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 gave Finland, alongside Sweden, the opportunity to seek membership of the European Union.

Finland within the EU stands as a prosperous upholder of liberal democratic principles. It’s a cohesive society with high levels of relative equality and a strong business sector.

I was reminded of this as I entered the escalator in Edinburgh’s St James’ Quarter recently with the word “Kone” boldly implanted into the steel step. Helsinki-based Kone is arguably the world’s leading lift manufacturer.

Finns are known to be reserved, industrious, determined and stoical. They have a word for it – “sisu” – which, in rough terms, means “strength of will, determination, perseverance and acting rationally in the face of adversity”.

Military conscription still applies in Finland. There are reserve forces of 280,000 people, from a population of five million. This compares with 148,000 in the standing British Armed Forces.

Finland’s armed forces are well funded, with two per cent of GDP spent on defence, for which there is broad cross-party support, and 62 F18 and 64 F35 fighters on order.

The preparedness against "emergencies" that Finland is known for meant that their Covid experience was comparatively mild.

The country is also well placed from an energy perspective. Once the new Olkiluoko power station fires up in September this year, 60 per cent of Finland’s electricity will come from nuclear. Wind power is also an increasing part of the mix while gas is a minor component, used only for some specific industrial applications. The potential loss of Russian gas supplies is but a minor issue.

Small nations with large neighbours that have dramatically different world views should know that, in extremis, they need to take precautions and shelter under the umbrella of like-minded groups of nations.

The European Union and Nato are two such groups. Those in politics in Scotland should be closely watching developments in Finland. It is interest to me that a recent Survation poll saw that 58 per cent of the population of Scotland wished to retain the UK’s nuclear deterrent with 20 per cent against. I suspect a significant change on a couple of years ago. Polls have their weaknesses but this number may have been influenced by recent events.

Finland and Scotland have significant connections. Finland’s second city, Tampere, was founded by a Scot, James Finlayson, who established a textile business there in 1820. The business still survives although considerably smaller today. Another, William Crichton founded the shipbuilding business that ultimately became the leading international Finnish engineering company Wärtsilä.

Henrik Ramsay, descended from a Scottish soldier of fortune, was Finland’s foreign minister back in 1944. These names are well known in Finland.

Indeed, Finland could be considered a role model for Scotland. The populations are about the same. Their high international Pisa ranking in education and fine health system show what can be done. Their ferries are pretty good too.

One might think that Finland’s – and Sweden’s – potential membership of Nato is only of passing interest to the people of Scotland. It is not. It is a momentous change with reverberations well beyond Scandinavia and Continental Europe.

It’s important because of what it means for Finland and what it means for the protection of our democratic ideals.

Harry Nimmo is the Honorary Consul of Finland in Scotland

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