Before a recent trip to Denmark and Sweden with Iseult, I decided to brush up on some Danish history by reading Jespersen’s acclaimed and excellent “A History Of Denmark”. Denmark and the other Nordic countries are interesting templates for good governance, with some policies that I would like to see Ireland adopt, and experiencing Danish society in person substantiated this view. Denmark has an intriguing history in which the state, even under an absolute monarchy, has always been seen as benevolent by its citizens. This perception lies at the heart of their introduction of higher taxes and the welfare state.
Denmark’s relationship with Sweden, who have an even more appealing model of governance, was formerly violent and is now peaceful. From 1563 until 1720, Denmark and Sweden were at permanent war with each other, with both countries acting as the aggressor at different periods in their history. Initially, it was Denmark, occupiers of Norway at the time, who were the instigators. Some of these battles were long and bloody: the Nordic Seven Years War (1563-1570) and the Kalmar War (1611-1613) were both instances in which the Danes attempted to force Sweden into a union. Danish King Christian IV again led the countries to war from 1625 to 1629, which in turn led to the Thirty Years War from 1630 to 1660, in which the ascendancy of Sweden threatened the very sovereignty and existence of Denmark as a state. So followed numerous wars between 1660 and 1720. During our visit, we were fortunate to witness a 250th-anniversary re-enactment of a 1717 naval battle, in which Swedish ships advancing upon Copenhagen were defeated by the Danes under legendary commander Admiral Tordenskjold. The persistent conflict weakened both sides and resulted in an increased Dutch influence in the region.
The threat of increasing Russian dominance propelled Sweden and Denmark toward a long-term truce in the early 18th century, bar a trivial episode in 1788 and a bloodless war from 1808 to 1814. Having overcome 300 years of animosity and conflict, these nations are now a model for peaceful relations between previously warring neighbouring countries. It’s a lesson to us all to see the two countries put aside such a violent past and forge a peaceful future. Not, however, that Denmark is entirely peaceable: although largely a neutral and peaceful country, they participated in the Iraq war. The might of contemporary Danish armed forces is visible in the former Holmen Naval Base, on the main canal: tourist sightseeing boats chug past a restricted area where numerous naval frigates are docked and a submarine rests on the quays.
Denmark is comprised of 476 different islands, only 79 of which are inhabited. The total population of 5.2 million people is similar in size to Ireland. Denmark’s sea area, including Greenland and the Faroe Islands, is a key naval passage from the Middle East to Europe. The country went bankrupt in 1813 in a part of their economic history which was to influence their future. Their main export remains beef and dairy farming and their agrarian society saw them develop the co-operative model for farms where all farmers got an equal vote, meaning small farms were not overlooked. In Denmark, a verbal promise to sell a building is seen as legally binding and if you break your word in public life you will be held accountable by the people. Historically, this built trust in leaders. As far back as the absolute monarchy, the state was “leased out” to private estate owners to collect tax. This gave a lot of autonomy to citizens and ensured sufficient lack of public agitation to spare the country the revolutions that were sweeping the globe at the time.
For most of its history, Denmark was run as a monarchy. Even in the turbulence of late 18th-century Europe, the institution was “so popular that only a handful of fantasists even considered starting a revolution in Denmark. When in 1848 the revolution did eventually come, it was peaceful, almost cordial, and the king renounced his absolute power without striking a blow”. Previous kings had devolved power to the Danish state beforehand and had helped to emancipate the peasantry. In 1849, the monarchy was restricted and began coagulating into a constitutional monarchy. It is incredible to think how “Frederick the Beloved”, a wonderful statue of whom remains in Copenhagen to this day, handed over power so peacefully. Over half of the world is still not democratic in 2017. There was a brief Easter crisis in 1920 when King Christian X decided to dismiss the whole government but this resulted in the democratic part of the government becoming even stronger, and in 1953 the monarchy was purely symbolic and wielded no actual power at all. This transition is absolutely critical to understanding why the Danish people viewed the state kindly and saw it as acting with their best interest at heart. Compare this with countries where this was not the case and it becomes easy to see how the welfare state was accepted in Denmark as opposed to in other states. Danish people trust their state. As Jespersen put it, “Most Danes consider the power of the state as a positive, and attribute it to qualities such as honesty, incorruptibility and neutrality”. The 1849 constitution had the King, Parliament and Jury as three separate functioning parts of a democracy.
Denmark has a strong religious past, the country becoming Lutheran when they felt that the Catholic Church had lost focus on giving to the poor. In 1526 the king ceased to take orders from the pope and the state began to merge with religion enforced by the king. Danish people still to this day cherish the church for the work that they do to help the poor. This is a positive role for the church to play. Despite being atheist, I still volunteer with the St Vincent de Paul in Ireland and I believe that the church can play a role in helping the most vulnerable in our society. The danger of atheist and new atheist movements is that they ostracise non-believers: a hallmark of communist regimes has been the targeting of religious people for their faith. Liberal, secular democracy is the way to go: let people believe what they want and if a church helps some people within this framework, all the better. Pietism in Denmark sought to separate church and state at the end of the sixteenth century and insisted that the state had no right to interfere in a person’s personal faith. Grundtvig, a famous Dane, became almost deified himself as a purveyor of secular democracy. “First a human, then a Christian,” he said. Words for 2017, too.
Some other parts of Danish history I found fascinating were how quickly they took to the Enlightenment through the Folk High Schools and the influence of the co-operative movement. Jespersen writes of the co-ops that “It is virtually impossible to understand the nature of contemporary Danish society without considering these two movements which politicised the rural population”. In 1864 Bismarck reunited Germany by taking the “Duchies” land, which included 200,000 Danish speaking people, from Denmark. This lasted until a plebiscite in 1920 when the northern part of Schleswig voted itself back into Denmark. In 1915 women were allowed to vote. In 1940 the Nazi invasion of Denmark and Sweden took them unprepared. Denmark joined NATO 1949 to avoid the controlling machinations of the USSR. The United States then put a military base in Greenland, as the Danes came under the protection of the US Nuclear Umbrella. In 1973 they joined the EC and they have occasionally taken a more proactive stance on foreign policy. In 1990 Denmark sent a warship to the gulf as part UN blockade of Iraq and in 1992 they sent 1,000 soldiers as part of a peacekeeping force to Croatia.
Denmark introduced compulsory education in 1814, some way before other European countries. Throughout the twentieth century, it was typically the Social democrats and the liberals who fought out elections in Denmark. Jens Otto Krag, twice Danish Prime Minister, said that “the workers and farmers were the core of the Danish population” and Jespersen wrote that they “respected each other and conducted a running political dialogue, which stretched across all boundaries of class and economic interests”. This “collaborative democracy distinguished Danish political behaviour for most of the twentieth century”. I think that this point has been critical to the success of Denmark. The workers and farmers were not “irreconcilable forces but a symmetrical pair who together supported Danish democracy”. There was not class warfare as Marx had envisioned it but rather class collaboration. The important thing was that both sides spoke and reasoned with each other. The process of working together was the key, rather than the actual achievement of a utopian ideal. This is why it is not easy to copy the Danish model. It is not simply a matter of copy-and-pasting their economic policies: it is a cultural mindset that needs to change. Jespersen wrote that the “Ideal of true popular democracy remained the goal”. I think that this is what needs to change in Ireland: to try to work together in a democratic setting. When you combine this true focus on democracy with “the fundamental attitude of modern Danes that the state is a friend and ally, not an adversary, a protector and not an enemy”, it gives the conditions for a well-run country. As far back as 1899, there were strikes by workers for better conditions that set the ground rules for the future. A September agreement that year had “paved the way for the workers to improve their wages and working conditions through negotiation rather than bruising conflicts”. The neophyte Marxist element in Danish society at the time “accepted that socialism could be introduced through incremental reforms rather than a revolution”. This focus on steady improvements and not revolution is a model for all countries worldwide. Live together peacefully and prosper.
Denmark is a peaceful, non-extremist, mature democracy and an excellent template that a plethora of countries could aspire to. Their welfare state, which taxed at an average rate of 51% in 2001, is an essential part of the Danish psyche. Interestingly, this focus on a welfare state has warded off communism, fascism and extremists at either end of the left-right spectrum. Jespersen: “The underlying philosophy was that the working class could use the ballot box to win power, step by step, and once they had control of the apparatus of the state, they could introduce comprehensive reforms to the benefit of the workers”. In this sense, Jespersen’s thesis is that the Danes were able to ward off the extremists in a way that Frish’s 1933 book “Plague over Europe: Bolshevism – Nazism – Fascism” believed was not possible. Jespersen has written a cogent, detailed history of the country and has given a great insight into how the modern Danish state has comes to be. It may be that other countries have not had the conditions to copy their blueprint, yet the key point is to put the foundations in place to let this type of society flourish.