On Danish exceptionalism
There is no ‘getting to Denmark’ without Danes
The Folketing, Denmark’s 19th-century parliament in the centre of Copenhagen, is a testimony to the Scandinavian virtues of reasonableness and moderation. Set within the Christiansborg Palace which is informally known as the Castle, or ‘Borgen’, it is the inspiration and setting for the hit drama that has just begun its fourth season in the UK.
Arriving in Britain in 2012, Borgen followed on the popularity of The Killing, soon to be joined by the Danish-Swedish crime thriller The Bridge, all of which helped to set off a sort of Scandimania across the North Sea. There followed countless think-pieces and books on the Danes’ superior way of life, their egalitarianism, happiness, those jumpers, cycling and, more recently, the hygge business. Shown on BBC4, Borgen appeals to an especially insufferable section of the British middle classes, of which I am one of the more insufferable.
One of the attractions of Borgen is that the stakes are so low; unlike with American drama, people aren’t trying to kill or even ruin each other, and season cliffhangers might end with the protagonist being out of power for a couple of years because the Moderates have gone into coalition with the Liberal Party or whatever. Game of Thrones it isn’t, but that’s the beauty of Scandinavia, the place where in the great life game of prisoner’s dilemma, everyone cooperates.
The real-life Borgen is a physical display of that worldview. In its corridors lie historical mementoes to Denmark’s transformation from absolute monarchy to social democracy, starting in 1788 with land reforms, a constitution in the mid-19th century, the introduction of universal suffrage in 1915 and the current settlement in the 1950s. In between where the two legislatures sat is a ‘conversation room’ where mutually-beneficial agreements were hammered out, a motto above the door extolling the ideals of justice and compromise.
After the war the Danes got rid of the upper house altogether, and proportional representation replaced the first-past-the-post system in the surviving ‘people’s assembly’, the Folketing, and so Danish governments are by definition comprised of coalitions. This suits the national psyche, since Danish social norms stress the importance of allowing everyone to say what they think, however offensive, a key cultural difference both with neighbouring Sweden and the English-speaking nations.
The little kingdom between the seas is often hailed as the world’s ideal, and with good reason. Denmark is the least corrupt country on earth. It is the third most equal. It is the third freest on the planet. It is — by a measure I’m very dubious of — the second happiest. (Are the Finns really the world’s cheeriest people?)
It is the country which US Democrats see as their model, whether in the centre or on the Left. Francis Fukuyama even talked of ‘getting to Denmark’, by which he meant reaching the pinnacle of political development.
It is little wonder that Denmark is the place that so many of us wish we could emulate. Culturally quite similar to us — it is, after all, where many of our ancestors came from — Denmark is roughly 30% richer than Britain, even though they work fewer hours. It is also run far more effectively: whereas the UK seems paralysed by an almost physical inertia, the Danes build endless infrastructure projects, including artificial islands, bridges, tunnels, electrified railways, 17 new cycle bridges just in Copenhagen, and a dozen cycle superhighways. The Danish capital hopes to become the first carbon-neutral capital in 2025 — because who else is going to?
Two-wheel activities are, of course, a big part of the Danish brand. Famously, Copenhagen is a cyclist’s paradise, the only rival to Amsterdam for the crown, and almost two-thirds of residents now commute to work or school by bike (up from a third in 2012). There are now five times as many bicycles as cars in the city, but what makes me seethe with envy as a Londoner is the fact that everyone leaves their bikes with the bare minimum of locks; this would be impossible in England, where bike theft is endemic and so under-investigated and prosecuted as to be effectively decriminalised.