Scandinavia isn’t perfect

DSCN6161, a photo by Hunter-Desportes on Flickr.
In the past couple of days, Denmark seems to have got (in-)famous for slaughtering a giraffe in public and feeding it to the lions, but until recently, many people seemed to think that Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries were some sort of paradise on Earth, which is probably why the criticism of Scandinavia published in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago attracted so much attention.

As a Danish emigrant, I’ve never thought of it as perfect, and I do agree with many of the points raised in the article. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn many useful lessons — we just need to be selective about what to copy and remember that sometimes we should be teaching them instead.

Anyway, I thought it’d be useful to address some of the points raised in more detail, so here goes:

Why do the Danes score so highly on international happiness surveys? Well, they do have high levels of trust and social cohesion, and do very nicely from industrial pork products, but according to the OECD they also work fewer hours per year than most of the rest of the world. As a result, productivity is worryingly sluggish. How can they afford all those expensively foraged meals and hand-knitted woollens? Simple, the Danes also have the highest level of private debt in the world (four times as much as the Italians, to put it into context; enough to warrant a warning from the IMF), while more than half of them admit to using the black market to obtain goods and services.

This is rather misleading. Yes, Danes have a lot of debt, but they have lots of assets, too, so if you look a net debt I don’t believe Denmark is worse than many other places. And of course moonlighting exists, but I don’t think it’s particularly widespread there. I’m also curious why using the black market would make you unhappy (unless you get caught, of course).

The real reason Danes top happiness surveys might have more to do with how to express the word “happy” in Danish (link in Danish), and the fact that Danes don’t like to admit they’re unhappy.

Perhaps the Danes’ dirtiest secret is that, according to a 2012 report from the Worldwide Fund for Nature, they have the fourth largest per capita ecological footprint in the world. Even ahead of the US. Those offshore windmills may look impressive as you land at Kastrup, but Denmark is the EU’s largest exporter of oil, and it still burns an awful lot of coal. Worth bearing that in mind the next time a Dane wags her finger at your patio heater.

This is not even mentioning the widespread use of wood-burning stoves in Denmark. 🙂

It’s certainly true that Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries are no saints when it comes to energy, but it’s a very mixed picture.

Denmark for instance taxes cars to a ludicrous degree (close to 200% on top of the cost of the car), which on the one hand means a lot of people use bikes or public transport instead of cars, but on the other hand it means a large number of the Danish cars are extremely old and would have been scrapped years ago in other countries. My dear wife once remarked about Copenhagen that although there was almost no traffic compared to a similar-sized city such as Glasgow, the air actually smelled worse.

A more positive example is the way Denmark uses the heat generated from crematoriums and from incinerating rubbish to heat houses.

I think energy and pollution is one of those areas where we can learn many lessons from the Scandinavian countries, but they can possibly learn more from us!

I’m afraid I have to set you straight on Danish television too. Their big new drama series, Arvingerne (The Legacy, when it comes to BBC4 later this year) is stunning, but the reality of prime-time Danish TV is day-to-day, wall-to-wall reruns of 15-year-old episodes of Midsomer Murders and documentaries on pig welfare.

I agree, Danish TV is generally dreadful. It’s Danish film-making that is wonderful. I guess it’s not a bad idea to invest what money you have in producing a few world-class films and TV series, rather than spreading the money out evenly.

The Danes of course also have highest taxes in the world (though only the sixth-highest wages – hence the debt, I guess). As a spokesperson I interviewed at the Danish centre-right thinktank Cepos put it, they effectively work until Thursday lunchtime for the state’s coffers, and the other day and half for themselves.

Although Danes on paper have very high taxes, I believe this is just a ploy to scare away potential immigrants. The official tax rates published include council taxes, national insurance and church levies, and most Danes have sizeable deductions that reduce their taxable income dramatically (for instance you get tax relief for mortgage payments and for commuting to work).

Once you taken all of the above into account, my guess is the typical Dane pays a wee bit more in tax that the typical Scot, but if you deduct the the high welfare payments (subsidised nurseries, generous unemployment benefit and all that) and you also remember that ordinary Danes typically have much higher incomes than their Scottish peers, I reckon most Danes are much better off.

As an example of the higher salaries in Denmark, apparently a check-out operator in the UK makes £9,262 a year but according to Ekstra Bladet, the average salary for this job in Denmark is £25,813 a year. Danish taxes would have to be insanely high to remove all of that difference!

The Cepos people he has been talking to are part of the right-wing think-tanks that are hell-bent on dismantling the Danish welfare state and turning it into a country Thatcher would have been proud of. It’s very sad that many Danes today don’t appreciate the wonderful system they’ve built up. I hope that seeing an independent Scotland building exactly this kind of welfare state might make them realise how unique the system is before it gets lost.

According to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment rankings (Pisa), Denmark’s schools lag behind even the UK’s.

It’s Finland’s schools that have been highly praised for years, not Denmark’s. In my experience, Danish primary schools aren’t great — I was bored out of my skull for most of the nine years. They aren’t bad when it comes to teaching modern languages, though, and that’s not included in the headline Pisa measurements.

Danish high schools are good (or at least they were in my day), but they are essentially grammar schools, so it’s hard to compare them to schools here. One interesting feature is that you can select to deselect maths and science to a very large degree, which will probably harm Denmark’s average scores for these subjects.

Its health service is buckling too. (The other day, I turned up at my local A&E to be told that I had to make an appointment, which I can’t help feeling rather misunderstands the nature of the service.) According to the World Cancer Research Fund, the Danes have the highest cancer rates on the planet.

The Danish health service has many problems. It’s organised and funded very much like the Scottish NHS (or perhaps more like the English NHS these days, given that privatised services are becoming an integrated part of it), except that dentistry isn’t included. I don’t think Scotland can learn much from Denmark in this regard.

“But at least the trains run on time!” I hear you say. No, that was Italy under Mussolini. The Danish national rail company has skirted bankruptcy in recent years, and the trains most assuredly do not run on time.

In my experience, Danish public transport is more punctual that what you find in the UK, but just like here, partial privatisation experiments have caused lots of problems.

Most seriously of all, economic equality – which many believe is the foundation of societal success – is decreasing. According to a report in Politiken this month, the proportion of people below the poverty line has doubled over the last decade.

Indeed. Denmark is most decidedly heading in the wrong direction. I would suggest that most of the lessons that Scotland can learn from Scandinavia with regard to building an world-class welfare state aren’t based on current developments. It’s the development and extension of the welfare state in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that we can learn a lot from, and sometimes from the later consolidation, but in most regards Denmark has ever since been pruning and scaling back welfare provisions — not so much because they had become unaffordable, but more because people have actually forgotten what poverty means, and if you don’t remember what the welfare state is protecting you from, it gets easy to think it’d be nice to pay fewer taxes.

Denmark’s provinces have become a social dumping ground for non-western immigrants, the elderly, the unemployed and the unemployable who live alongside Denmark’s 22m intensively farmed pigs, raised 10 to a pen and pumped full of antibiotics (the pigs, that is).

Yes, Denmark is a very centralised country, and pig farming is big business. The recent giraffe debacle has demonstrated the rather utilitarian attitude most Danes have to animals.

I’m not sure it’s true that the provinces have become a dumping ground. What seems to be happening is that anybody with a university degree or any ambitions gravitates towards Copenhagen or one of the other cities, but that’s something we’re seeing in many countries at the moment.

There remains a disturbing Islamophobic sub-subculture in Norway. Ask the Danes, and they will tell you that the Norwegians are the most insular and xenophobic of all the Scandinavians

Xenophobia is a problem in many Scandinavian countries. The cause is probably that the societies have been culturally uniform until recently, which makes it hard to accept that other people might want to do things differently.

The Danes have been described as a tribe, and it is indeed very difficult to get accepted while being different in any way. Danes have even started talking about requiring immigrants to assimilate rather than just integrate.

Danes also have a real problem with understanding why anybody would emigrate, unless it’s to get filthily rich.

It’s an area where I must say I prefer Scotland to Denmark. I love the fact that Scotland has been a multilingual country for at least two millennia, and indeed differences and conflicts are an integral part of Scottish culture, whether talking about languages, religions, clans or football.

Scotland is also very much a country of immigrants and emigrants, a country where almost every family has a grandparent born outwith Scotland, or a cousin who moved abroad.

Of course you can meet xenophobia in Scotland, too — it would be strange if it didn’t exist at all — but it’s much less insular and xenophobic than any of the Scandinavian countries.

The Finns are epic Friday-night bingers and alcohol is now the leading cause of death for Finnish men.

Binge-drinking is a problem in most countries where the winters are too dark for comfort. If anybody was under the impression that alcohol wasn’t a problem in Scandinavia, they’re sadly mistaken.

Most of the Nordic countries have opted for a highly controlled system (similar to what they have in Canada, I believe), where alcohol can only be purchased in state-owned shops that look more like pharmacies than supermarkets. Denmark, on the other hand, is extremely liberal. There is a cultural norm that says that you start drinking at your confirmation (age 13 or 14), and Danish high schools routinely serve beer at parties (age 15 and up).

Effectively a one-party state – albeit supported by a couple of shadowy industrialist families – for much of the 20th century, “neutral” Sweden (one of the world largest arms exporters) continues to thrive economically thanks to its distinctive brand of totalitarian modernism, which curbs freedoms, suppresses dissent in the name of consensus, and seems hell-bent on severing the bonds between wife and husband, children and parents, and elderly on their children. Think of it as the China of the north.

I believe this is a consequence of the tribe mentality I mentioned above. Because everybody is similar and conflicts are frowned upon, it gets easy to go to far. Because nurseries are plentiful and cheap, it becomes the norm to send your children there all day every day, and once the norm has become established, it gets difficult to go against it.

The myriad successes of the Nordic countries are no miracle, they were born of a combination of Lutheran modesty, peasant parsimony, geographical determinism and ruthless pragmatism (“The Russians are attacking? Join the Nazis! The Nazis are losing? Join the Allies!”). These societies function well for those who conform to the collective median, but they aren’t much fun for tall poppies. Schools rein in higher achievers for the sake of the less gifted; “elite” is a dirty word; displays of success, ambition or wealth are frowned upon.

In my experience, it’s mainly Londoners (even if they were born in Scotland) who find that Scandinavians frown upon displays of success and wealth; it’s not really that different from Scotland. The Lutheran mindset wasn’t really that different from the Presbyterian one, I believe, so again the difference is more marked when you come from England (and especially London) than when you’re from Scotland.

I think the points raised here have shown that Scotland can learn a lot from Scandinavia, but there are equally many points where Scandinavia should look at Scotland. That’s how it should be, and it’s best neither to idolise nor demonise any foreign country.

Many of the Danish/Scandinavian problems are due to excessive homogeneity, a lack of both immigration and emigration for many years, and the insular outlook you easily get from speaking a language that isn’t shared by other countries.

Scotland has never been a homogenous country, it’s always been a country of immigrants and emigrants, and the native use of English is a good bulwark against parochialism. I therefore think it’s likely that Scotland can successfully import many of the successful elements from Scandinavia without succumbing to the Scandinavian malaise.

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