Category Archives: Denmark

Vote Yes to save the Danish welfare state

P3313479 by tracy apps, on Flickr.
Denmark used to have a great welfare state, but it’s getting undermined at the moment.

For instance, private hospitals are taking over more and more of the Danish NHS (like in England). Unemployment benefits are being reduced. Nursery prices are going up. Tax rates for high earners are getting cut.

Interestingly, it’s not because Denmark cannot afford the welfare state at the moment, but because politicians and civil servants are primarily getting their inspiration from the US and from England, so they’re under the impression that it’s the only way forward.

To a large extent, the Danish political left lost its mojo years ago. A majority of people want to preserve the welfare state that they love, but they keep getting told its unaffordable (which is simply not true).

Meanwhile, in Scotland the independence debate has energised lots of people, so the whole place is buzzing with new ideas. We’ve also lived with Westminster’s neo-liberal consensus for so long that we know why it’s wrong.

Projects like the Common Weal are thus showing the way forward for the welfare state, and it’s in many ways years ahead of the Danish debate.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Danish politicians start flocking to Scotland soon after independence to learn about the Common Weal and find inspiration to rebuild and improve the Danish welfare state.

Most Danes might not realise it, but Denmark needs Scotland to vote Yes.

The government Scotland voted for

The governments of the UK, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
The governments of the UK, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. ‘L’ means Labour or equivalent, ‘T’ means Tory or equivalent, and ‘U’ means undecided (Scotland sent the same number of Labour and Tory MPs to Westminster for a few years).
One of the more popular indyref illustrations circulating on Twitter points out that Scotland has voted Tory for 6 years out of 68 but has had Tory governments for 38 of those years.

When you look at how Scotland voted and the resulting UK government, Scotland got what it voted for 54% of the time since 1945. However, this actually makes it sound like Scotland has a decent amount of influence. An analysis by Wings over Scotland showed that “for 65 of the last 67 years, Scottish MPs as an entity have had no practical influence over the composition of the UK government,” and the conclusion was stark:

The truth is that the only people who can vote the Tories out are the English. It doesn’t matter what Scotland does: we get the government England votes for every time, it’s just that sometimes – less than half of the time – our vote happens to coincide with theirs and we feel as if we played a part when actually we didn’t.

This made me wonder how Scotland’s voting patterns compare with the three Scandinavian countries — Norway, Sweden and Denmark — so I created an illustration of the largest party at general elections in Scotland as well as the political alignment of the governments in London, Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Denmark is an even worse match than Westminster (Scotland and Denmark overlapped for 53% of the time compared with 54% for Westminster), but Norway is a much better match at 63% and Sweden topped this comparison with an overlap of 69%.

That’s right — for 69% of the years since 1945, the Swedish government in Stockholm has been in alignment with the wishes of the Scottish electorate, in spite of the fact that Scotland sends no representatives there.

This is not an attempt to argue that Scotland should form a political union with Sweden instead of England (although the government of the United Kingdom of Sweden and Scotland would probably act in accordance with the wishes of the Scottish electorate much more often than Westminster does). However, it’s important to realise that Scotland influences the composition of the Westminster government so rarely that the government overlap with independent but like-minded countries like Norway or Sweden is actually much greater.

Being in a political union with a country that is ten times larger and has very different voting habits doesn’t lead to a sense of enfranchisement in the population. Fortunately, the solution is simple: Independence.

Going to the pub after independence

Pub beer prices in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the UK.
Pub beer prices in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the UK.
Better Together have been circulating an illustration of beer prices on Twitter today.

It seems to be based on figures from, which is hardly a reliable source for such information — it’s simply a site for people to record what they’ve paid for a pint somewhere in the world. The result is that the Danish price is an average of prices as diverse as the following: Aalborg: £1.04, Aarhus: £3.44, Copenhagen: £5.08, Kastrup: £7.22, Odense: £2 and Sønderborg: £6.69. One should therefore take the figures they used with a grain of salt.

I don’t dispute at all, however, that a pint in a pub in Denmark tends to be more expensive than what you’d pay in a similar place in Scotland.

This is to a large extent because Danes tend to drink more at home and private parties, and less at pubs. (The situation might be changing slowly, but that definitely used to be the case when I lived there.)

For many people in Denmark, a pub is a place you go for a drink after your cinema trip, not your regular watering hole.

So most Danes buy a lot of the beer they drink in supermarkets, not in pubs, and prices aren’t shocking in shops. A typical price for a 500ml can of Carlsberg (which is of course not by any means the cheapest brand) in a supermarket seems to be around 15 Danish crowns (= £1.65).

Beer prices are much higher in Sweden and especially Norway than in Denmark, but that’s because of a deliberate price policy in order to combat alcohol-related problems, so trying to estimate the general cost of living by looking at pub prices is a very bad idea.

Apart from that, GDP per capita is much higher in the Scandinavian countries than in the UK (Norway $100,318, Denmark $59,190, Sweden $57,909 and UK $39,567), so even if Scandinavians want to spend their salary drinking lager in pubs, they tend to be able to afford this.

The whole point of the Yes campaign in general and of the Common Weal project in particular is that we need to move away from the current low-wage economy and try to achieve a situation like in Scandinavia where prices might a bit higher but salaries are much higher so that a typical person can afford a better quality of living.

In other words, perhaps putting up the minimum wage to a reasonable level will mean that pub prices will rise a bit, but if most people are much better off than before then it’s not a problem at all.

Besides, increasing the minimum wage and/or increasing alcohol taxation will be policy choices for an independent Scotland. If we want cheaper pints after independence, we can simply vote for political parties who want to achieve this. It will be up to us.

Views from visitors

My friend Kakha in the Pot Still
My friend Kakha in the Pot Still, a photo by viralbus on Flickr.
In the past months, foreign visits have taken up a lot of my spare time. A couple of weeks ago, my old friend Kakha from Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia) visited us for a few days, and now my mother has arrived from Denmark. Both have been political activists in the past, so it’s always refreshing to hear their views on the independence debate.

Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the following year its autonomous region Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia. Later South Ossetia decided to do the same, which led to the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. In other words, Georgia has both positive and negative experiences with independence movements.

It was therefore necessary for me to persuade Kakha that Scotland is similar to Georgia, not to Abkhazia or South Ossetia. However, both Scotland and Georgia experienced many centuries as independent countries before they became part of a political union with a big neighbour, they maintained a distinct identity within that union, and their right to self-determination was never seriously in doubt, so it wasn’t hard to convince him.

Once that had been settled, Kakha spent the remainder of his visit asking how anybody in their right mind could vote No to independence. He simply couldn’t understand how people who consider themselves Scottish could even contemplate voting against independence. I tried to explain the Scottish cringe and all that, but he didn’t get it. The only explanation that he could see any merit in was when I suggested that some people overestimate Scotland’s influence within the UK. Most other potential reasons were dismissed with words too strong for this blog, especially when I dared to quote the “we’re too poor” line. “But you’ve got whisky and oil!!!” cried Kakha.

My mum is less agitated about the independence issue than Kakha, but she keeps repeating that she doesn’t get why people don’t understand that Westminster wouldn’t be bullying and scaremongering if they didn’t have a lot to lose from Scottish independence, and that Scottish independence must consequently be a good idea.

In their own ways, Kakha and my mum both demonstrate that The Herald’s foreign editor was spot-on when he summarised typical foreign views of the independence referendum:

[E]ven in countries all too familiar with the risks and costs that political separation brings, the anecdotal evidence suggests people still think it a cause we Scots should embrace. Viewed through the prism of such people and their experiences, the ludicrous scaremongering that has been a hallmark of the debate within the UK can be seen for the nonsense that it is. If such people are not afraid, why should we Scots be?

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.

How to keep Scottish universities free after independence

Foam Fight_3946
Foam Fight_3946, a photo by Sarah Ross photography on Flickr.
The following is a reworked and updated version of this old blog post:

At the moment, the main reason why English students are not all going to university in Scotland (where university tuition is free, compared to English universities that will typically charge £27,000 for a 3-year degree) is that Scottish universities charge them up to £27,000 for their degree. This is only possible because the EU rule about not discriminating against EU students only applies to students from other EU countries (such as Ireland, Denmark or Bulgaria) and not to students from other parts of the UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

As soon as Scotland regains her independence, rUK students become EU students and will have to be treated in the same way as students from Scotland.

This is an area where the Scottish Government’s White Paper is a bit vague, and many unionists have now started claiming that Scotland will have no choice but to introduce tuition fees after independence (see this article by Severin Carrell for details).

However, some lessons can be learnt from Scandinavia, where the closely related languages in theory make it easy for students to study in the other Nordic countries, and EU rules mean these foreign students can’t be discriminated against based on citizenship.

Denmark used to have great problems in this area. For instance, large numbers of Swedes used to study medicine in Copenhagen and then go home straight after graduation. In 2007, Denmark therefore did two things (link in Danish): (1) They changed the number of advanced highers (“højniveaufag”) a student needs to pass to get a grade top-up, which benefited Danes in comparison with Swedes. (2) They changed the way they translated Swedish grades into Danes ones (that is, they made it harder for them to get in).

Apart from this, Denmark pays generous grants (typically £7616 per year) to university students who were living in Denmark prior to starting university. (Denmark used to require students to have lived there for at least five years in order to qualify, but this is an area that the EU is currently clamping down on.)

Scotland could copy some of these policies after independence.

There are already plenty of differences between A Levels and Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers, so it would be easy to tweak the entry requirements to make it harder for rUK students to get into Scottish universities. Scotland could also introduce a new grading system different from the one used in the rUK, which would then need to be converted. The very best rUK students would of course still get in, but that would be to Scotland’s advantage anyway. (The rUK might retaliate and make it harder for Scottish students to get into their universities, but you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.)

Scotland could also introduce tuition fees for everybody, but cancel out the effect by creating grants for Scottish citizens and residents. However, as I wrote above, the EU is not too happy about creating too many restrictions in this area.

In an ideal world such measures shouldn’t be necessary, but until it dawns on the English that they’re shooting themselves in the foot by pricing bright young people out of universities, I fear that Scotland will have to take a leaf out of Denmark’s book.

Finally, England is the odd man out in the EU when it comes to tuition fees. Most EU countries have either no fees or very low ones. Scotland might be able to convince the other countries that England’s sky-high fees are distorting the free movement of students and that restrictions have to be placed on English students until England lowers its fees. This would be an ideal solution.

The Three Hundred Year Night

Holberg, a photo by JsonLind on Flickr.
If you read Norwegian texts from the period when Norway was ruled from Copenhagen (1397–1814), you don’t get the impression that Norwegians were terribly unhappy about their plight. In fact, they didn’t take any steps towards independence until Denmark had to hand Norway over to Sweden after the Napoleonic wars. It’s quite possible Norway would have remained part of Denmark if Denmark-Norway hadn’t been on the losing side in those wars.

However, after Norway became independent again in 1905, it became popular to refer to the years of Danish rule as firehundreårsnatten “the four hundred year night”. With hindsight, they suddenly realised that Norway could have done so much better if it had been run by Norwegians for Norwegians in Norway all along, and they were kicking themselves for having put up with Danish rule for so long, even though at the time it seemed like a reasonable set-up.

Will Scots in the same way talk about the period from 1707 to 2016 as the “three hundred year night” in a generation’s time? Will people be shaking their heads in disbelief at what their forebears thought was an acceptable state of affairs?

PS: The photo shows a statue of Ludvig Holberg, who lived from 1684 to 1754 and is often considered the father of Danish literature. He wrote in Danish because Norwegian had ceased to exist as a written language, in the same was as Scots is now often seen as an English dialect. Although he was born in Norway, he studied in Denmark, worked in Denmark and lived in Denmark because Denmark didn’t see any need to build a university in Norway. It’s quite lucky the Scottish universities were founded before 1707.