Walking in Copenhagen two months ago I came across the prime minister and his dogs. Denmark is a highly politicised nation, with turnout for elections consistently above 80 per cent, but no-one else was giving him the slightest bit of attention. So just where has this relaxed relationship sprung from?
Every year around 110,000 Danes flock to the island of Bornholm to take part in a national “Folkemødet” (literally “Public Meeting”). This laid-back coming together of around nine hundred political and independent organisations with party leaders to discuss events of national importance, from healthcare to prices of Carlsberg, is typical of the relaxed Danish relationship between the people and their leaders.
Wherever you are in Denmark, it’s clear you are in an intensely politically involved nation. The scrutiny placed on their comparatively low-powered government is striking: which other country of the same size airs numerous political talk shows and live streams from its parliament on major television channels to consistently high viewers, and indeed produces a political thriller with the same calibre as Borgen, to become an international success?
Unlike their neighbours in Sweden (where the prime minister, Olof Palme, was assassinated in 1986, and the foreign minister in 2003) Danes have been lucky to avoid any major shocks to their leaders’ security, and it is perfectly possible to approach the prime minister on your way home from dinner, as I did last month.
A large factor in explaining this relationship will of course be down to the fact that Denmark is- with a population of only five million (compared to the UK’s sixty million)- such a small country.
This is the response the prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, gave me when I told him I couldn’t imagine bumping into Theresa May giving an interview on the streets of London. The fact that Danes are never more than a few handshakes away from each other, and over 70 per cent of them have seen their queen, compared to fewer than 50 per cent of Brits, leads to a noticeable lack of bureaucracy and centralisation.
“Over 70 per cent of Danes have seen their queen, compared to fewer than 50 per cent of Brits”
Many have suggested, however, that the tendency for Danes to maintain a close relationship with their politicians springs from history, and in particular a series of national embarrassments; most notably handing around a quarter of their territory in Schleswig-Holstein to Austria and Prussia under the Gastein Convention of 14th August 1865 following two wars of succession. Far from venting anger at the government for their weakness, many believe Danes became more sympathetic, seeing the benefits of sticking together to protect their corner and laying the path for the post-war, now world-renowned, welfare state.
And, while a sensationalism of politics caused by social media, most notably in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, can lead to an easy spread of unfounded, extreme views, Danes believe it has done little to destroy their rational thinking at the ballot box.
One could of course cite the seemingly unstoppable rise of Kristian Thulesen Dahl’s far-right Dansk Folkeparti, whose popularity now regularly exceeds twenty per cent in opinion polls: surely this is at least in part a response to Danes losing rational thinking and turning to extremes?
But Thulesen Dahl hopes to return Denmark to a time before globalisation; a time when the country was even more politically engaged.Around 90 per cent of the population would go to the polls in the 1940s, but even the last parliamentary elections in 2015 saw 85.8 per cent of the electorate cast their vote. The UK’s snap general election last month in contrast- hailed by commentators as one of the most important in history- saw a turnout of only 68.8 per cent.
While Britain may be a much larger country with a more centralised and removed system as a result, I believe the sense of obligation for Danes to express a political opinion and sympathise with their leaders is something, in these turbulent times particularly, the UK could strongly benefit from.