Category Archives: Denmark

Higher taxes, but more money in your pocket, too

Halftone, a photo by I’m George on Flickr.
When people discuss proposals such as the Common Weal, you often hear complaints that taxes would have to be sky-high to finance a Scandinavian-style welfare state.

Taxes are indeed a wee bit higher in Scandinavia (but not drastically so, once deductions are taken into account), but most Scandinavians nevertheless have more money coming into their bank account than their current Scots counterparts.

This is because salaries are typically higher in Scandinavia than here. (The exception is at the very top — if you make more than £100k a year, you might be better off under the current system.)

For instance, in Denmark the minimum wage is about £12 per hour, so almost twice as much as in the UK. I believe somebody on this salary would pay about 30% tax in Denmark, whereas they would pay nothing in the UK at the moment, so the take-home pay is still almost 50% higher for the Danish worker, although they’re paying much more tax, too.

Combined with subsidised child-care and other elements of the cradle-to-grave welfare state, most people would definitely be better off if an independent Scotland introduced the Common Weal proposals.

Celebrating a Scottish victory

Alex Salmond waving the Saltire.
Alex Salmond waving the Saltire.
I wasn’t going to write anything about Salmond waving the Saltire after Andy Murray’s victory, but the reactions — especially from unionist quarters — have been so strong that I decided to have a quick look at it.

I have seen four reasons given for being upset at Salmond’s wee stunt:

  1. It’s against the rules of Wimbledon’s All England Club.
  2. It would have been OK for normal people to wave a Saltire, but a First Minister should be above such plebeian antics.
  3. The Saltire is a symbol of the Yes campaign, and as such it shouldn’t be displayed at a non-political event.
  4. Doing it behind Cameron’s head was wrong.

Let’s examine these in turn:

The Queen of Denmark, the Crown Princess and the Crown Prince at a handball match.
The Queen, the Crown Princess and the Crown Prince of Denmark at a handball match. No stiff upper lip there.

  1. Against the rules: While it might be against the rules, it’s hardly a huge crime, and I somehow doubt anybody would have been mortally offended if Đoković had won and the Prime Minister of Serbia had pulled out a Serbian flag.
  2. Not something a First Minister should do: It appears to me to be part of the so-called “Scottish cringe” that important people should act like the English upper class, and such people would celebrate a tennis victory with a stiff upper lip. However, there’s no reason why this should be the case. In Denmark, the royals and important politicians don’t act like Englishmen, and neither did Scots before the union with England. As Michael Fry writes in The Union:

    [During] James VI’s journey south in 1603 to claim the throne of his late cousin, Elizabeth of England, the people swarmed to welcome him in almost intolerable numbers. […] He asked what all these people wanted, and smooth-talking Englishmen replied they came of love to see him. He cried in Scots: “I’ll pull doon ma breeks and they shall see ma erse.” When he had spoken like that at home, his people answered in kind. That was how Scots treated their kinds, worthy of loyalty but on a level with themselves.

  3. The Saltire is the symbol of the Yes campaign: If this is now the case, it follows that the Union Jack is now the symbol of the No campaign, and both should be banned from non-political events until the referendum has taken place. This would be rather perverse, given that both flags primarily are symbols of their countries, not of political movements.
  4. Not behind Cameron: I fail to see how waving a Saltire behind Cameron’s head can be seen as offensive. Downing Street were flying a Saltire that very same day, and Cameron is the Prime Minister responsible for Scotland, as well as being of part-Scottish descent. If I had been Cameron, I would have turned round and waved it together with Salmond.

To conclude, it doesn’t strike me that any of the reasons given for being outraged really hold water, so it’s more likely it’s simply the No campaign trying to throw mud at their opponents.

Constitution Day

Grundlovsdag, a photo by larsloekke on Flickr.
Today is Constitution Day (Grundlovsdag) in Denmark.

Possibly because Denmark has been an independent country since times immemorial, the country doesn’t have a national day, so Constitution Day is the closest you get. It’s not a day of big celebrations, though — in general, people gather to listen to politicians speaking about the value of democracy, but that’s about it.

However, I do like the fact that the country has chosen to celebrate its constitution, rather than some battle or royal event. I guess the Scottish Constitution will come into force on the day Scotland becomes independent (March 2016?), so constitution and independence might become interwoven for Scotland, too.

What does it mean to be Scandinavian?

skandinavien!, a photo by phhin on Flickr.
Scandinavia is often mentioned by people campaigning for Scottish independence (more frequently than Ireland, which really is a bit odd).

However, most Scots don’t actually know that much about Scandinavia, so let me try to describe what it means to be Scandinavian.

Let me first point out that Scandinavia is really just Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The wider group of countries that also includes Finland, the Faeroe Islands and Iceland (and sometimes also Greenland) is called the Nordic Countries.

The main bond uniting Scandinavia is the fact that the languages — Danish, Norwegian (Bokmål & Nynorsk) and Swedish — are mutually intelligible after a bit of exposure. Danish and Swedish are probably about as different as English and Scots (and to stretch the analogy a bit further, Norwegian is then like English spoken with a Scottish accent). There’s obviously also quite a lot of shared history, but a lot of it involves wars between Denmark and Sweden.

All Danes, Norwegians and Swedes will agree that they are indeed Scandinavians, but it’s not an identity that can be separated from the actual nationality. If you’re Danish, you’re by definition also Scandinavian, and you can’t be Scandinavian without also being Danish, Norwegian or Swedish.

The Nordic Countries (not just Scandinavia) have operated a passport union (which allows all Nordic citizens to travel freely without a passport) since 1954. It’s quite similar to the Common Travel Area uniting the UK and Ireland. The Nordic countries have not traditionally allowed dual citizenship, but instead it’s somewhat easier to become a citizen in one of the countries if you were born in another Nordic country than if you were born elsewhere.

There used to be a currency union, but it broke up in 1914. This is the reason all the countries call their currencies the crown (krone/krona), although they aren’t pegged to each other any more.

Otherwise, there aren’t many tangible benefits to being Scandinavian. There have been several attempts at creating some kind of political union in the past, but these have typically failed because the individual countries don’t actually agree on very much. Also, Denmark typically is keen to include Iceland in everything, and Sweden doesn’t want to exclude Finland, which means that all Scandinavian projects end up involving all the Nordic countries.

However, something still unites Scandinavians. It’s very clear if you go to an international meeting (such as an academic conference): The Danes, the Swedes and the Norwegians will typically end up as one group in the evening because they share so many linguistic and cultural bonds. It’s just something you don’t think much about until you leave Scandinavia.

Lessons on the rise of UKIP from Denmark for Scotland

Dansk Folkeparti's Pia Kjærsgaard
Dansk Folkeparti’s Pia Kjærsgaard, a photo by Radikale Venstre on Flickr.
It’s clear that UKIP did extremely well in yesterday’s local elections in England.

Some people like to compare UKIP to the BNP or to proper fascist parties, but I actually think the closest parallel is to Denmark’s Dansk Folkeparti (“Danish People’s Party”).

Dansk Folkeparti was founded in 1995 by former members of Fremskridtspartiet (the “Progress Party”), which had been troubled by large numbers of loonies and a prison sentence for its founder and chairman. Because of this, they have always been quick to chuck out all extremists and weirdos so that they can’t be easily dismissed as a loony party.

Dansk Folkeparti has never been a great success in electoral terms, typically gaining between 10% and 15% of the votes in national elections (which is approximately the level UKIP is polling at currently).

However, ever since its foundation it has had a tremendous effect on the policies of the other Danish political parties.

The typical pattern has been like this: Dansk Folkeparti make a suggestion (e.g., to limit the number of immigrants, or to put some restrictions on Denmark’s EU membership); the other parties at first dismiss it, but the media give it plenty of coverage (because it’s always a good story from a journalistic point of view), and some dissenters within the other parties are quickly found that agree with it, and eventually the other parties implement at least 50% of the original proposal. As soon as this has happened, Dansk Folkeparti start demanding even more, and the whole process starts again, with the result that after 10-20 years, the mainstream parties have adopted policies that are more extreme than those originally advocated by Dansk Folkeparti.

The reason the other parties adopt Dansk Folkeparti’s policies is because they fear the voters will otherwise start voting for them. In other words, it’s not because Dansk Folkeparti has actually won any elections, but because the opinion polls make the mainstream parties worried they’ll lose lots of seats in the next election if they don’t do something. We can see this in England at the moment, where many Tory MPs (and some Labour ones, too) fear they’ll lose their seat at the next general election if they don’t win back the voters who appear to be shifting to UKIP.

I left Denmark in 2002, and looking at Denmark from the outside it became abundantly clear to me that the whole society was shifting to the right every single year. The effect is that while I used to define myself politically as slightly right of centre, the only party that appeals to me now in Denmark is Enhedslisten (the “Unity List”), which is the left-most party (I used to compare it to the Scottish Socialist Party).

We’re already seeing how the English parties are starting to adopt UKIP’s policies. I don’t believe the Tories would have promised an in/out referendum on EU membership if he hadn’t felt threatened by UKIP’s rise in the opinion polls, and I also think Ed Miliband’s hardening stance on immigration is largely caused by UKIP.

Unless they suddenly self-destruct, I’m therefore extremely worried that the presence of UKIP will cause a gradual adoption of their policies by Labour and the Tories in England. The way to defeat them is relatively simple — their policies need to be opposed rather than appeased. However, I don’t see any signs of that happening.

There’s not much Scotland can do if England decides to make UKIP its lodestar.

UKIP isn’t even on the political horizon in Scotland, so we will probably see the political divide between England and Scotland widening drastically over the next ten or twenty years.

Independence doesn’t prevent this political change in England, but at least it means we won’t be ruled by a government that has stolen UKIP’s clothes. I’m extremely worried that England will pull us out of the EU and start making life intolerable for all immigrants. Scotland has to get off this train before it’s too late!

How Thatcher destroyed the coalition of nations

Anti-Margaret Thatcher badge
Anti-Margaret Thatcher badge, a photo by dannybirchall on Flickr.

Did Margaret Thatcher create the current independence movement in Scotland?

I was intrigued by a blog post on the pro-independence blog Bella Caledonia, which quoted James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still:

One of the unintended effects of Margaret Thatcher’s revolution […] was to destroy Scottish loyalty to the British State. If it didn’t provide you with a job, if it didn’t give you a decent pension or adequate health care or proper support when you were out of work, what was it for? It wasn’t for anything – except maybe things you didn’t want or believe in, like nuclear weapons on the Clyde, or the poll tax.

When you’re trying to govern a coalition, whether of parties or of nations, it’s important to keep them all happy.

Let’s have a brief look at Danish politics. Just after the last general election there was an interesting interview with Henning Dyremose, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the first of Poul Schlüter’s Conservative governments (in my own loose translation):

What the Social Democratic Prime Minister needs to do is to create a situation where the Socialists win, where the Social Liberals win, and where she can ignore the Social Democrats. The latter are so delighted that she becomes prime minister that she does not have to give her parliamentary group and the ordinary party members any kind of concessions. If she can make a deal that makes both Socialsts and Social Liberals happy, she knows the Social Democrats will also be happy. If the Socialists — who were weakened in the elections — are also weakened in the government programme negotiations, their members will begin to ask whether the price they pay for supporting a Social Democratic prime minister is too high. If the Social Liberal leader doesn’t get enough concessions, she could just as well remain outside the government. The Social Liberal Party would have more influence if they chose to remain outside the government. That’s why they’ll be expensive to include in the government.

I find it interesting to apply Dyremose’s advice to the UK. That is, one should realise that the smaller nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) have the ability to leave and realise their ambitions elsewhere, so England should give them more influence than strictly speaking necessary to keep them happy. Ultimately, English politicians (and to some extent English voters) will be content so long as England is leading a strong United Kingdom, even if the smaller nations sometimes get their own way. (This also applies to Spain, of course, where Catalonia is clearly not seeing the benefit of remaining within the Spanish Kingdom any more.)

It reminds me of my old suggestion to double the number of Scottish MPs in Westminster.

Anyway, I don’t think anybody in Westminster is going to pay heed to the advice above. The Scottish loyalty to the British state has been broken, and the natural way forward now is to vote Yes in 2014.

Should Denmark join the UK?

Christiansborg Christiansborg  With the 'tower of power'. Christiansborg is where the danish parliment ('Folketinget') resides.
Christiansborg Christiansborg With the ‘tower of power’. Christiansborg is where the danish parliment (‘Folketinget’) resides., a photo by boegh on Flickr.
British unionists love to praise the Union in such a way that you’d think every small country in the vicinity would want to (re-)join the UK. I presume the arguments would be similar for Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, but given that I spent the first 30 years of my life in Denmark, I’ll examine whether this country ought to join the UK.

I’m assuming Denmark would get a devolution deal similar to Scotland’s, so that the Danish Folketing would still be in charge of quite a lot of policy areas.

From the UK’s point of view, the deal is a no-brainer because the UK would suddenly become an import player in the Arctic region (Denmark includes Greenland), which would reinforce the UK’s position as a world player and make it less likely the permanent seat on the UN Security Council would get lost. The practical implications would be minor:

  1. The House of Commons would get an addition of Danish members. Given that Denmark is tiny bit bigger than Scotland, we might be talking about adding 63 Danish members to the existing 650 MPs. The Danish members would probably support both sides equally, so it shouldn’t disturb matters too much.
  2. The House of Lords would need some Danish lords, too, but there wouldn’t be any need for a specific number.
  3. Revenues from the Danish North Sea oil rigs would go straight to Westminster.
  4. Danes would be paying a lot of taxes straight to Westminster. In return, a block grant would be sent back to Copenhagen.

From Denmark’s point of view, things are more complicated. The positives include that the British army would have to defend Denmark (but then they already have that obligation, given that both countries are part of NATO), and that the UK would be bailing out any bankrupt Danish banks (but in return Denmark wouldn’t be able to limit the size of the Danish banks, and it’s likely that the biggest ones would shift a large part of their operations to London).

Here are some things that wouldn’t change:

  1. Education: Education would be fully devolved, so Denmark could still let kids start school at the age of 7, maintain Danish as the language of instruction, and keep its own exams. The downside of this is that Danes wouldn’t automatically get better at English, nor would they start sitting internationally well-known exams.
  2. Health: The Danish NHS would be maintained without change. However, funding would come out of Westminster’s block grant for Denmark.
  3. Police: There would still be a Danish police force. But PET and FE would be replaced by MI5 and MI6, and the UK Border Agency would take over the task of guarding the Danish border.
  4. Agriculture and fisheries: Denmark would still have powers in these areas, but the UK would represent Denmark at the EU’s decision-making meetings.

But here are a few things that would:

  1. Oil: The revenues from this would go straight to London, rather than strengthening the Danish economy. The way Denmark has just decided to raid the oil companies to pay for a £3.2bn improvement of the railways would become impossible.
  2. Foreign policy would be run from London. Denmark would have to pull out of the Nordic Council and the special cooperation across the Danish-German border. Denmark would have to introduce passport controls at the borders with Germany and Sweden.
  3. Economic and monetary affairs would be run from London. From time to time, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee might include a Dane or two, but there wouldn’t be a fixed quota.
  4. The Danish monarchy would be replaced by the British one, and Denmark would lose the right to choose its own form of government.
  5. There would presumably still be commercial TV channels covering Denmark, but the public-service TV channels would be merged with the BBC. They would still broadcast some Danish programmes at times, but the majority of the programming would be standard BBC stuff.
  6. The Danish army and navy would become parts of their British counterparts.
  7. Denmark would have to introduce normal UK taxation. Amongst other things, this would mean a reduction in personal taxation, VAT and car taxes, but it would also mean a loss of interest payment deductions and the commuting deduction. In total, this would probably mean that Denmark would have significantly less money to pay for parts of the welfare state, such as subsidised nurseries.
  8. Social benefits would be paid from London. Denmark would have to introduce the bedroom tax, and unemployment benefit would be the standard British jobseeker’s allowance (something like £71 per week).

I find it very unlikely that a proposal for Denmark to join the UK would get even 1% support in a referendum. There are just almost no real benefits, and thousands of negative consequences.

Three hundred years ago, things might have looked different, but these days a small country can be part of the EU and NATO, and then there are just very few reasons for it to join a big one.