Danish Horizons #1: A model for Scotland?

If you were to choose one other nation on the earth that was most similar to Scotland what would it be? England? Ireland? Norway? Wales? Sweden?

If judged upon size, geography and European culture, it is difficult to overlook Denmark.

As a nearby nation of 5 million people, facing out towards the North Sea, surrounded by a myriad of islands and convinced of its social democratic pedigree, Denmark could be Scotland’s cousin. Yet when you consider the political and cultural differences, it is more like a long-lost cousin.

As the independence debate prompts Scots to look out across the world, we must consider such comparisons anew and in depth. As it stands, Scotland’s political and cultural experience of Denmark is often simplified or non-existent. That is no great surprise. How often does the Scottish media present Denmark – or any of Scotland’s non-UK neighbours – in a complex or educative manner? Our culture, as a result, stagnates around a single North-South axis, unflinching like an inflexible spine. If Scotland is to look to the world and its nearest neighbours for a more fulfilling public life, then that must change – collectively and personally.

Admittedly – before visiting Copenhagen – my own knowledge of Denmark did not extend far. An appreciation of Viking heritage, longboats and a childhood love of Peter Schmeichel was all I could muster. To my eternal shame the only Danish band that I could recognise was ‘Cartoons’, whose ridiculous single ‘Witch Doctor‘ still tremors within the memories of my misspent youth.

So I flew to Denmark.

After a short flight from Edinburgh above an unbroken mattress of white cloud, the Norwegian Air Shuttle twisted above the archipelago revealing the city of Copenhagen below – clean and bright in the sun, and hopefully withholding some wisdom for Scottish ears.

My prior political research retrieved the expected information for a Scandinavian nation: rich with high employment; equal with quality social services; green with advanced technology. The main downside of this success seemed to be the beer price.

Scotia-Scandinavian comparisons are in vogue; and not only because of recent fascination with the television drama Borgen. Considering how this nation of 5 million Europeans came to be this way has been an increasing interest of Scottish commentators and academics. Lesley Riddoch has led the Nordic Horizons think-tank, which considers what lessons Scotland can draw from the Scandinavian experience. Previously David Arter engaged in similar musings when he penned the work ‘The Scottish Parliament: A Scandinavian style assembly?‘ Whether the consensus, culture or politics of Scotland has become more Scandinavian following devolution remains disputed.

However, the greatest opportunities for this genre of political investigation lie ahead. The most substantial questions that may link Danish and Scottish life have yet to be brought into full focus. In the years ahead Danish models of defence, social security and taxation can serve as a template or at least a reference point for how Scotland could be – independent or otherwise. Aspects of the Danish way of life – from cycling to cabin holidays to culture – have their own significance in terms of social well-being and would be worthy exports for enterprising Scots. All these questions and models – academically, politically, socially – can grow in prominence as we look out into the world.

There is no better time to start than now. The ‘Common Weal‘ Project led by the Jimmy Reid Foundation seeks to do just that. Taking inspiration from Nordic models, gaining the backing of an impressive range of academics, and seeking to gain support across Scotland, the Danish experience is firmly on the political agenda.

Iain McWhirter in his new book The Road To The Referendum celebrated this parallel:

Denmark has a population of just over five million, has an advanced welfare state, is independent in Europe, and has one of the highest living standards in the world. It also showed you didn’t have to be a big country to have a vibrant political culture and it also showed how a small country could still have an impact on global affairs.”

“According to the World Bank, Denmark has one of the lowest levels of inequality in the world. Social protection is generous. In Denmark, full-time childcare costs £200 a month; and unemployment benefit is £400 a week for two years. This compares with our job seekers allowance of £71 and then only for over-25s.”

“Whatever it is they’re doing over there, it works.”

Before relapsing into an unending hollucination of Nordic bliss, it is important to state that all communities have their flaws. Denmark is no different. Yet Danish society works. Its people flourish. ‘Whatever it is they’re doing’ it would be useful to find out. That knowledge and understanding may light the path for Scotland to follow.

Michael Gray
National Collective



About Michael Gray

Michael studies politics at the University of Glasgow. He admires creativity, optimism and education. He desires peace, social justice and good parties.

There are 6 comments

  1. Tam McTurk

    I look forward to treading the rest of your series. I spent 20 years living in Copenhagen (1985-2005) and look forward to hearing your thoughts once you get past the inevitable and unavoidable initial surface scratching. I went there a Labour member and while pro-devolution, very much (even actively) anti-independence. It only took a few months of looking at the history, politics and economics of Denmark for me to see through the lines I was being spun by the likes of Dennis Healey in the late 70s & early 80s and I have supported Scottish independence ever since. Denmark is NOT a perfect society and there are lessons there to be learned – things to avoid for example – as well as things to copy. One thing I would say – and it is not a criticism of my Danish friends, just an observation – is that the Danes are an inordinately proud lot, so I hope they haven’t spun you too many yarns 🙂

  2. annindk

    I’m increasingly weary of this sort of post. Scotland is not a ‘Nordic’ nation – the Scandinavian mindset is alien to outward looking, individualist and diversity loving Scots. I can self deprecate as well as the next person, but this has got to stop! Let’s be proud of ourselves and stop looking for ‘models’.

    I’ve been living in DK for seven years, born and brought up in Scotland and living and working in England for several years. DK has a lot to learn to before it will be able to operate in a globalised world. Living here gives you a rather different perspective!

  3. Lesley Riddoch

    Nice one Michael – though I do take Ann’s point too. No entire Model is entirely right for any other country. That’s why Nordic Horizons takes speakers over to focus on individual subjects areas and you can hear speech audio and get notes on each event by visiting http://www.nordichorizons.org and searching for eg “Danish.” Having said that, each subject area tends to demonstrate pretty clearly how good outcomes rely on a couple of fundamentals not present in Scotland/UK right now — very local, municipal government encouraging participation, equality, a stake in society and high levels of mutual trust; high quality public services encouraging low lovels of opt out by middle class tax payers (esp good and affordable early years provision allowing women to work and pay tax ) ..and thus higher levels of tax (though not vastly much more.)

  4. Lilly Hunter

    AFAIK, the Danish £400 unemployment allowance INCLUDES housing benefit, the £71 you mention for the UK does not include the housing benefit.

  5. HeleninDK

    I’ve been living in DK for 6 years and I find I rather disagree with Annindk, but I suspect the experience of living here very much depends on where you live, if/where you work, if you speak danish and if/how much you socialise with the danes (and who with). Copenhagen and Jutland are very different for example. There are a lot of issues there that aren’t to the point of this article.

    Personally, I love living here, I’m happy to pay the taxation “price” for all the social services I receive and I dread the day I’m forced to leave (with work) as the daycare alone (quality as well as price, which incidentally is closer to £320 per month per child not £200) makes it worthwhile to be here, I would not have two small children and a fulfilling career if I was still back in the UK, quite apart from the fact the quality of life I can afford here is way higher than it would be back “home”.

    However none of these things work in isolation, it’s impossible to pick out one or two things and say, we’ll have those but not that. Denmark had the advantage of starting off on the road relatively equal in terms of income, something Scotland does not have the luxury of, then there’s the famous consensual and highly participatory political culture which I would say is essential to getting the reforms needed in place.

    Incidentally I would say it’s not true that the danes are not individualistic, in fact if anything the social security system makes people more individualistic as the social part is taken care of by the state sector, this seems to have an interesting psychological effect. The nation is however failry homogenous, although the percentage of danes from non-european backgrounds is around the same as the UK as a whole, so actually higher than in Scotland and as elsewhere in Europe, integration is a problem in some places.
    I also find that many young danish people travel widely and are indeed quite open and outward looking, they just tend to return to Denmark when it’s time to settle down and frankly, given the quality of life and ease of having a family here, who can blame them.

  6. Philip

    What is a Nordic nation anyhow? Swedes are different from Icelanders as Danes are different from Norwegians.
    Secondly, the interesting and fundamental question here is, would Scotland change with independence? I mean culturally esp. Would it begin to lose those characteristics that arguably come from English domination since Norman times? Would, might an independent Scotland steer more towards Nordic ‘models’ than Anglo-Saxon ones? Norway has had a huge oil bonanza, while Denmark has none. Denmark has some 5 million people to Sweden’s 20+ million? Norway is like Greece and Scotland probably about 4/5 mountainous while Denmark is essentially flat.
    Someone should (maybe someone already has) write a book giving some clear comparisons between ‘Nordic models’ and Scotland with some notions of how Scotland might adapt some of those models to her own benefit. That would be an interesting point of information ahead of any 2nd referendum on independence. Scotland could go it alone but might have to consider some quite integral and fundamental changes to her social and economic expectations in order to succeed. Those 300 years of English ‘socio-cultural’ domination of Scotland would need to be considered when assessing how Nordic models could be applied to Scotland. IMHO.

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