Walking in Copenhagen I bumped into the prime minister and his dogs. No-one else seemed to play him the slightest attention.
Every year 110,000 Danes flock to the island of Bornholm to take part in the national Folkemødet, a sort of country show, but with the rings full of politicians. Party leaders discuss events of national importance, from healthcare to prices of Carlsberg, in a setting typical of the relaxed relationship between Danes and their leaders.
The scrutiny placed on Denmark’s comparatively low-powered government is striking. Which country of the same size airs political talk shows and live streams from parliament on major television channels to be met with consistently high viewing figures. And which other nation of the same size has managed to produce a political thriller with the same calibre as Borgen, now an international success and enjoyed by leaders from David Cameron to François Hollande?
The Danish prime minister’s security is relaxed, and it is perfectly possible, if one happens to see him around, to strike up a conversation. This is exactly what I did last month in Copenhagen as I was walking back to my hotel from dinner. Although nobody else was playing him the slightest bit of attention, I decided it might be rather fun to meet him, so I waited for him to finish his interview (about Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord), then walked up to greet him and his spaniels.
“Although nobody else was playing him the slightest bit of attention, I decided it might be rather fun to meet the prime minister of Denmark, so I waited for him to finish his interview, then walked up to meet him and his spaniels.”
Denmark, a country of just over two million (compared to the UK’s sixty million) is a nation where its inhabitants are never more than a few handshakes away from each other. Over 70 per cent of Danes have seen their queen, compared with fewer than 50 per cent of Brits. Unlike Sweden, whose prime minister, Olof Palme, was assassinated by a passer-by in 1986, Denmark has avoided any shocks to their leaders’ security. Prime Minister Rasmussen did have security the night I met him – about three (discreetly armed) guards – but a friend of mine from Stockholm whose mother used to work in the Swedish ministry of justice (strangely the prime minister’s workplace), told me it was almost impossible to get anywhere near Prime Minister Löfven without first enduring almost airport-style security checks.
Some historians suggest the tendency for Danes to cosy up with their politicians goes right back to the Schleswig-Holstein wars of the 1840s. Far from venting anger at their leaders’ humiliation – about a quarter of Danish territory was handed over to Germany – Danes became more sympathetic, seeing the benefits of sticking together to salvage what was left and protect agaisnt further embarrassment.
In the 1940s, about 90 per cent of Danes would cast a vote in the national elections; 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 – hailed as one of the most important in history – saw a turnout of just 68.8 per cent. Certainly Britain is a much larger country, with a more centralised and removed system as a result: it’s impossible to imagine bumping into Theresa May on the streets of London any time soon. But I believe a sense of obligation among Danes to maintain a close working relationship with their leaders is something, in these turbulent times particularly, the UK could strongly benefit from.