1980s >> 1986 >> no-986-october-1986

Letter from Denmark

Copenhagen in summer is a pleasant place. On sunny afternoons the old part of the city centre, closed to traffic, is crowded with people, sitting, strolling, shopping, talking. Wander through the cobbled squares, past fountains and gracious old buildings and you will find people gathered together to listen to street musicians, sitting in outdoor cafes drinking beer and talking, or playing chess. The shops are full of attractive clothes, shoes, and wooden furniture combining the natural materials and stream-lined design typical of Scandinavia. Despite what to the English observer seem to be very high prices, the shops don’t appear to lack customers. There is an air of efficiency about Denmark: for a large city the streets are clean; houses seem attractive and well-maintained; public buildings show none of the signs of decay that can be found in them in Britain. Even the social security office is carpeted and has potted plants around the place. Things seem to work in Denmark.

At weekends if you leave the city you will find yourself in the company of many other city dwellers who are off to their summer houses in the country or on the coast, or to go sailing or wind surfing on one of Denmark’s many lakes, or for a bicycle ride along specially constructed cycle paths through forests and past the traditional saffron-coloured stone farmhouses of the villages. Or maybe they’re on their way to their kolonihave hus — a peculiarly Danish institution. To compensate for living in city centre flats with no gardens. many Danes own small plots of land in the suburbs or just outside the city limits, which they cultivate as flower or vegetable gardens. Most have a small wooden house there which is equipped with most basic amenities. Many city dwellers leave their flats behind in the summer and move out to these more congenial surroundings.

Sexual equality seems to have advanced much further here than in England. The state provides nurseries to care for children, even the very young, thus enabling mothers to go out to work. There are play centres — fritidshjem — that children can attend after school until their parents get home from work. Equal pay legislation seems to be rigorously enforced. Sex roles are apparently less rigid: men pushing prams along the street appear less self-conscious than in Britain; I’ve seen men, apparently unperturbed and with no-one else paying much attention, knitting in trains.

If you talk to many Danes this impression of a happy, healthy, efficient society will be confirmed. They will proudly show you their houses fitted out with attractive modern furniture. equipped with modern kitchens and even, perhaps, a sauna. They will show you on a map of Denmark where their summer house is situated — not too far away, just a comfortable drive in the Volvo or BMW that sits in the drive. You will quickly become aware that the standard of living and wages are relatively high in Denmark and that this is the pay-off to workers for cooperative labour relations. Mothers are entitled to three months’ paid leave on the birth of a child; they receive reasonable child-allowance; their children can attend a nursery so that women can return to work quickly; at seven when children start school, they will enjoy the most modern “pupil-centred” teaching methods; the majority of children, although they can leave school at sixteen, will stay on until 17 or 18. For those who do leave earlier there are a range of apprenticeships and vocational training schemes on offer. For the 10 per cent of the work force who are unemployed, unemployment benefit is available, paid at a considerably higher level than in Britain. But should problems of one kind or another develop then the social services are ready to step in and take control of the situation until the problem is resolved.

The proud Dane might also draw your attention to the country’s liberal constitution. Denmark is Europe’s oldest kingdom and. prior to the granting of the first liberal constitution in 1849, it was ruled by an absolute monarch. However, when the time came for change, the monarchy gave up without a fight. No need for anything as messy as a revolution to establish parliamentary democracy. Since 1953, when the constitution was amended, the Folketing, or Danish Parliament, has functioned pretty much like the House of Commons. The Danes pride themselves on having one of the most complicated systems of Proportional Representation in the world. The intention is that parties are represented in the Folketing in exact proportion to the percentage of votes they receive. But in order to stop too many small parties securing representation and making it difficult to form a stable coalition government, a party must have got at least 2 per cent of the total votes cast before it is allowed representation. But, as just about any Dane will tell you, they hardly notice when there is a change of government. Life goes on in much the same way whether it is the Conservative party that is the biggest party in the coalition, or the Social Democrats. And things don’t alter all that much whether the coalition partners come from the Radical Liberal party, the Liberal party, the Socialist People’s party, the Independents, the Left-Wing Socialists, the Communists, or the Progress Party – all of which have had representation in recent years.

Denmark certainly does seem to be a model liberal social democratic welfare state. So why then is it that at almost any hour of the day and night, drunks can be found reeling along Copenhagen’s attractive streets? Why in the city’s squares can you see teenagers dressed in the tattered uniform of the punks and demonstrating the same signs of nihilism and self-destruction that seem to be their hallmark? Why is it that Denmark’s comprehensive social services don’t seem to be able to offer a solution to these social problems? And why is it that the Turkish workers who come to Denmark to find employment live in conditions that are worse than those of most Danes? Not for them the modern apartments and stripped pine furniture. or the summer house in the country. Why is it that displaced young people from Denmark’s former colony on the island of Greenland, attracted to Copenhagen by the prospect of work and city life, are so prone to violence and drunkenness? Doesn’t “social democracy” have anything to offer them? How could it be that the image of social cohesion that Denmark likes to project was shattered last year when a bomb blew up a synagogue? And what about Denmark’s reputation as a liberal and tolerant haven for those seeking to escape persecution and repression in their own countries? Can that survive in the wake of recent changes in policy restricting the numbers of immigrants – refugees or otherwise? Why, if this is the best of all social democratic worlds, do so many people seem to want to opt out of it in one way or another? Some try to go back to a mythical golden age of rural simplicity by returning to the land and living in organic farming cooperatives; others build boats and. in true Viking fashion, set sail around the world; many young people join one of the eastern mystical religious sects that flourish here as in any other European city, preying on the loneliness and despair of the young; others opt out through drugs and drink, and some do so permanently through accidental death or deliberate suicide.

Why, if this is such a harmonious society, are the police armed, and why have I heard stories of police brutality that are curiously reminiscent of those told to me about the Met? Why are there demonstrations about the nuclear power station just across the water on the Swedish coast, closer to Copenhagen than to Stockholm? Denmark itself is. after all, a “nuclear-free zone”. Why is the graffiti on the walls all negative? Why, instead, doesn’t it extol the virtues of “social democracy” that provides the people with the liberty to spray paint on walls (provided, of course, the police don’t spot them)? Why is the “welfare state” under attack? Why are concerned parents now wondering whether it really is such a good idea to leave their toddlers in a nursery from seven in the morning until five in the evening just so that both parents can work full time to earn the money which pays for the house, the car, the summer house and so on? Why at five o’clock in the afternoon do you see the same grey faces emerging from offices and factories, boarding trains and buses, riding their bicycles wearily, loaded down with shopping and a child collected from the nursery? Why do they so often have the tense, lifeless expression worn by workers all over the world at the end of another working day?

Why, in other words, does Denmark despite its high standard of living, its efficient system of welfare and “social democratic” constitution exhibit the same stresses and strains, conflicts and contradictions, unhappiness and unfulfilled lives that can be found in any capitalist state? Could it be that “social democracy” doesn’t live up to its own propaganda and that capitalism is capitalism no matter how efficient the welfare state, how high the standard of living or how liberal the constitution?

Janie Percy-Smith

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