Dreaming of being Danish
Catherine Staite, Director of Inlogov, 8 January, 2013

Committed followers of The Killing I, II and III, The Bridge and Those Who Kill may be forgiven for thinking that Denmark is a dark and dangerous place. Borgen will lighten the picture but visiting Denmark will really convince you of the essential reasonableness of the Danes.

Danes are a tribe as much as a nation. Danish society is characterised by a sense of solidarity and commitment to mutual support – almost universally committed to their generous welfare system and attached to their excellent public services. They also place a high value on collaboration and compromise as ways of resolving conflict and reconciling competing demands. Borgen fans will know how much of Birgitte Nyborg’s political life is spent managing a complex coalition. She works with opponents from a wide range of political perspectives, including the far right. She often can’t stand her opponents but she works with them to find the best possible outcomes. Her victories are subtle and quiet but nonetheless impressive. How different from our confrontational, name calling, ‘winner takes all’, ‘losers are just losers’ approach to politics – particularly at the national level

Working with political, managerial and academic colleagues in Denmark demonstrates that Borgen may be fiction but it is rooted in reality. Hvidorve, a suburb of Copenhagen has 21 members from 7 parties. They value their distinct party values and policies but they also collaborate and compromise to get things done.

So what’s stopping us becoming more Danish? We are too accepting of the idea that politics has to be nasty and about winning and losing?

All of the serious problems which society faces – an aging population, worklessness and public health issues such as obesity and excessive drinking are ‘wicked’ issues for which no simple, ideologically driven, solutions are available. We can’t change if politicians can’t change and move from confrontation to collaboration and actually apply their collective intelligence to doing some good rather than scoring points. The dreadful behaviour including mindless abuse, casual misogyny and rowdy behaviour – which we see from allegedly grown up (mostly men) MPs at PMQs – would earn a 15 year old schoolboy a temporary exclusion but that is the behaviour politicians are happy to exhibit on television. Select Committees demonstrate a much more Danish approach – being cross party, usually very polite and often asking the right questions and actually listening to the answers – but their activities don’t get much airtime. No wonder national politics is held in such low esteem.

Local government usually sets a better example for courtesy and cross-party collaboration and compromise. A coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats led Birmingham City Council for 4 years and many councils with no overall control couldn’t function without some give and take.

National government is making heavy weather of coalition – largely because it is a different game, played by different rules and they haven’t quite got the hang of it yet. Party hacks are still talking about which side has won the most ‘points’ or got their own way – which suggests they are rather missing the point. The point of coalition is to do the best possible job together.

We may have another, different coalition after the next election. Perhaps they’ll look to Denmark for some advice on how to make it work. The Danish would probably be too polite to tell them the awful truth; Danish styles politics is a game for grown-ups.

Catherine Staite is director of Inlogov and has recently completed a number of study trips to Denmark. Inlogov’s website can be found HERE.