Danish hygge in 2016 – or putting things in perspective

There has been a lot of stuff about Danish hygge floating around in the Anglophone media in the last six months. Here, for example. And here. And here. Nothing wrong with that: the idea of cosiness and happiness is a key metric in assessing the quality of one’s life.

What has bothered me more is that many of the articles reporting on hygge, and how Denmark is one of the happiest countries, if not the happiest country, in the world, don’t appear to take into account stuff like this. And this. And this. And a lot of this was on the cards after last June’s election – or even before it, when a victory for the right bloc (and the very aggressive right-wing politics it was propounding) was a strong possibility.

No-one would suggest that Denmark is all about seizing assets from refugees, placing ads in foreign newspapers telling refugees not to come to Denmark etc. But clearly by the same token it’s not all about eating home-made cinnamon pastries and curling up underneath duvets either (certainly not at this moment in time). Without wishing to sound churlish, some journalism that put things into perspective and attempted to reconcile the two strands wouldn’t go amiss either – maybe as Patrick Kingsley did a few years ago. There’s nothing wrong with being kind to yourself but surely one has to wonder why Danish politicians (who got their jobs because people voted for them*) have not exactly displayed the milk of human kindness in profuse proportions to others (and whether metrics projecting Denmark as one of the happiest countries in the world are inviolable). Some might say that we don’t sound very Scandifriendly on this occasion – but concerned Scandifriendliness and Scandifawnery seem to be two very different entities. There, we’ve probably burned our Øresund bridges now.

* to make it doubly clear, the one thing we don’t dispute is that the right bloc is back in power in Denmark because people voted for them. That’s how democracy operates, and the collective left failed to make a better case for election last June even if the departing Prime Minister was still by some margin head of the biggest party. What we do dispute is whether the policies pursued by the new government are an unambiguous sign that Denmark is a very happy country in the way that some people make it out to be.

New parties key to Denmark election result?

The Denmark election is taking place today with polls on a knife-edge. A Gallup poll late last night had the centre-left bloc, led by incumbent prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, narrowly trailing the centre-right bloc, led by the man Thorning-Schmidt ousted from the premiership in the 2011 election, Lars Løkke Rasmussen.

Just as was the case with the shock Conservative victory in last month’s UK general election, it would be rash to jump to simplistic conclusions (or indeed predict the election outcome), not least because these polls certainly do not present a cut-and-dry case for ‘Thorning-Schmidt bad, Rasmussen good’.

The Gallup poll projects that Thorning-Schmidt’s governing Social Democrats will actually gain two seats and narrowly increase its vote tonight (a parallel of sorts with former UK Labour leader Ed Miliband, who has had to deal with the paradox of suffering the most devastating defeat for his party in 32 years whilst being the first person to increase the Labour share of the vote in 18 years).

Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Helle Thorning-Schmidt

At the same time, Rasmussen’s Venstre Parti is set to post what in any normal circumstances would be an exceptionally bad result. Having suffered the indignity of coming third in last year’s European elections, they are projected to lose ten seats on the basis of this Gallup poll. Within the right-wing bloc at least, the party with all the momentum behind it is the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party), who are pursuing the same populist right-wing agenda that has served them well at the polls for several years. The Gallup poll projects that they will win ten seats.

Although there is evidence that anti-establishment politics is gaining traction in Denmark, I would argue that this is not borne out by the standing of the People’s Party itself. Having played a key role within the right-wing coalition that governed Denmark between 2001 and 2011, it seems more establishment than anti-establishment, not least when its views on the EU and immigration are not exactly unconditionally rejected and repelled by Thorning-Schmidt herself. 

The ‘anti-establishment’ zeitgeist seems better represented by the Alternative Party, a green political party that has nonetheless remained coy about saying whether it does ‘left or right’ politics (although it is technically part of the Thorning-Schmidt bloc going into tonight’s election). The party itself dates back to 2013, but Gallup projects that it will pick up eight seats tonight (having of course not won any mandates in 2011). Perhaps on the evidence of the Wiki description, ‘green entrepreneurship’ would describe its ethos better.

Similarly, the Liberal Alliance, formed as recently as 2007, and part of Rasmussen’s centre-right bloc going into the election, are projected to gain four seats – even though the Danish Wiki page seems to bear out concerns that it is rather light on policy, its commitment to EU membership notwithstanding.

Although the new parties seem key to the election result, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiments are defining the political debate in Denmark, irrespective of who wins. The worrying aspect for the left must be the projected retreat of the minor parties within the centre-left bloc, with the pro-immigration Danish Social Liberal Party projected to lose the eight seats it gained in 2011 and the Socialist People’s Party projected to lose seven seats, just as it did in 2011. This may be the most potent factor with regards to the overall result as voters go to the polls today.

If Thorning-Schmidt does hang on, there may well be a sense that she has scrambled over the finishing line with no particular momentum for the left, with the main story a direct net switch from the Venstre party to the Danish People’s Party and not enough voters defecting from the left bloc to the right bloc.

That was more or less the pattern of last year’s election in Sweden, when support for Fredrik Reinfeldt’s ruling Moderate party collapsed and the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats benefited. The Social Democrats, under the much-vaunted leadership of Stefan Löfven, had seemed certain to gain power, but their vote barely increased and they barely got over the finishing line (or indeed didn’t at all given that they had to form a minority coalition with the Greens which barely made it through last year and into this one in one piece).

Stefan Löfven - unconvincing victor in Sweden last year

Stefan Löfven – unconvincing victor in Sweden last year

Unlike the UK, the question of exit from the EU seems less potent in Denmark (for now, at least). But a recent piece in the German press suggesting that the direct train connection between Berlin and Copenhagen is in jeopardy seems in some way symbolic of Denmark’s predicament at the moment. It is part of the EU, unlike Greece it is not in a state of financial crisis that threatens its very presence in the European project, and under the Social Democrats unemployment has gone down somewhat since the nadir of the 2008 financial crisis (belying concerns that immigrants pose a threat to actual job availability).

For all that, Denmark looks curiously detached and wary of the outside world, even in a decade where numerous countries look detached and wary of the outside world. That’s a particularly big irony at a time when Danish televised drama has once more its best to conquer the televised drama world with 1864, a series which seems to resist jingoism and parochialism with every ounce of its conception and realisation.

World’s most influential sisters?

We’re sure we saw a headline today declaring that, given that they both appear on Time Magazine’s survey of the 100 most influential people in the world, that Kate and Pippa Middleton are the most influential sisters in the world. We don’t want to dwell on this one too much other than to query whether Hanne Thorning-Schmidt, whose little sister got voted in as PM of her country, is not doing perfectly well for herself whilst keeping a low profile. We’re more republican than royalist here but we’d point out by the same logic that Queen Magrethe of Denmark seems a definable polymath in her own right – whilst boasting a sister who was once Queen of Greece (and is still considered such by some). And that’s before you get to the non-Scandi Venus and Serena, whose stars are fading only in purely relative terms. Define ‘influential’.

The polymath monarch and sister

The polymath monarch and sister

Scandi words and phrases of beauty, Part 5 – skumfidus

Thanks to our long-time friend Hanne Ipland Bonczoszek for alerting us to the wonderful new entry in this series – skumfidus. Being an omnivorous type, Worldly Scandifriend would quite happily hoover up a bag of marshmallows and only think about facing the sugar hit consequences afterwards.

But this Danish word for marshmallow also has the effect, metaphorically, of turning a frog into a prince. If you look at this Danish-language dictionary, you might be tempted to translate skumfidus as, literally and variously, foam scam, foam trick, foam person/small object which is difficult to characterise, scummy trick and scummy scam. Even if you get it completely wrong in the process, there’s something funny and pleasing about the fact that potentially unbecoming linguistic compounds become becoming when associated with this delicacy. We suggest you enjoy this paradox and let it buoy your marshmallow float. *

Definitely not the skum of the earth

Definitely not the skum of the earth

It’s the least we can do to thank Hanne by highlighting her work as a highly experienced, capable and empathetic professional in the field of human resources – particularly with regards to helping potential jobseekers prepare for interviews. She’s based in Salisbury, UK – and you can access her website here.

* on a slightly more serious note. We’re sure skum means foam in this context. But what precisely might the fiduser be referring to in a marshmallow context? We’d love to know. Thanks.

Danskemania/Dane-mania/Denmark Mania in the UK

Maybe it’s not as hysterical and wide-reaching as Beatlemania in the 1960s, but Danskemania/Dane-mania/Denmark Mania – acclaim for all things Danish – has surely hit some kind of high-water mark (or high-water Denmark?) in the UK, among certain sections of British society at the very least. It would be nice for Worldly Scandifriend to do some serious swotting on Anglo-Danish relations throughout the centuries to put this into some kind of historical context, and we will make sure that that follows in good course – but let’s look at the 2012 evidence for the time being.

Anglo-Danish relations: at a high-water mark in 2012?

We have new-found British residents of Copenhagen happy to extol the city in largely glowing terms in very prominent articles in the national press. If they’re not alone in having made the move in recent times, it may be because they and others took a very strong cue from newspaper articles suggesting they should do so. We have also reached the point where Noma, hailed as the best restaurant in the world, is perceived not as an isolated anomaly or one-off but the jewel in a very rich crown of interwoven references as far as Danish – or at least Copenhagen – cuisine is concerned.

Centre-stage at the heart of this cultural zeitgeist is an unfailingly modest yet utterly triumphant trinity: the actress (Sofie Gråbøl), the detective she plays (Sarah Lund), and the woolly jumper synonymous with both. The actress, replete with woolly jumpers, has just got to meet the future Queen of the United Kingdom – although Brits might have had alternative interpretations on the day as to which one was royalty.

Two kinds of royalty

Royalty meets royalty

Now I may not have the full historical context on this one, but I remember when Danskemania didn’t exist on this side of the North Sea – and it wasn’t that long ago. This article from 2003 by John O’ Mahony, scathingly slating endeavours within Danish theatre, made an impression on me, not least because it so obviously echoed the legendary words uttered by the Harry Lime character played by Orson Welles in the 1948 film The Third Man: to the effect that safe, consensual, peaceful and democratic societies which put a weighty emphasis on such qualities simply don’t produce good art. 

To his credit, O’ Mahony did perceptively note that the advent of populist right-wing politics in Denmark at the very beginning of the 21st century might serve as some kind of wake-up call. And it is indeed impossible to dissociate the subsequent social and racial tensions, Muhammad cartoons and all, endured by the country in the last decade from the grim ‘trust no-one’ mantra espoused by The Killing, the series which has (surely) made Gråbøl a legend in her own lifetime.

But which vision of Denmark rings more true? It’s difficult to believe in this environment that the country’s new Social Democrat-led government is on an easier footing than its historical predecessors – yet ‘better quality of life’, and the very idea of social democracy still in many ways intertwined with that notion, remain a default tag for Denmark and its Nordic siblings among those Britons who have made, or might be tempted to make, the move Danmark-side. See the links in the second paragraph if you don’t believe me.

At the same time, part of the attraction of programmes such as The Killing and Borgen is surely that they are prepared, in humane and balanced yet highly persuasive fashion, to tackle sensitive social issues – not just multiculturalism, but especially the concept of 21st-century feminism and the role of women in the workplace. In the UK, that has cut some serious ice – and not just with the liberal-left intelligensia.

Borgen - taking 21st-century feminism very seriously

Borgen - taking 21st-century feminism very seriously

Sometimes this head-on approach can stoke tensions – as seen in the decision by theatre group Cafe Teatret to use the manifesto at the heart of last July’s Norway massacre as the basis for a drama. That event felt like (and still does feel like) the worst moment of Worldly Scandifriend’s life, even as a relatively distant spectator – so it’s understandable if the bereaved have strong reservations about how Anders Behring Breivik’s legacy might be interpreted for artistic purposes.

It remains to be seen whether such works can convert freedom of speech into something of palpable artistic merit that will serve humankind as a whole throughout the generations. But, as far as Denmark and its theatre is concerned in the immediate present, what a distance travelled since O’ Mahony’s 2003 critique. Ivory tower drama and Downton Abbey this ain’t.  

On this basis, I would return to one of my previous posts and suggest that if Denmark has retained its social democratic/’quality of life’ credentials, it is in an atmosphere where those who espouse such beliefs have to stand up and make their voices heard if they want to be regarded as potent and credible. One such example might have been the response to recent right-wing demonstrations in Århus. That must have evoked some relief among liberal- and left-slanting people in Britain, but if you think that’s stating the obvious, it’s again worth thinking of this in some kind of modern historical context.

In 1994, if a lot of UK-based residents reacted with relief to anything emanating from Denmark, it was Whigfield finally ending Wet Wet Wet’s hegemony on top of the hit parade. We still think of that moment fondly, but we feel that Anglo-Danish relations have in the interim become more critical, more subtly nuanced, and more valued – perhaps in a way which they haven’t been since 1945. In particular we note one thing. Political correctness started to get a beating in Blighty around the aforementioned 1994 – especially as lads’ mags moved into the ascendancy. Worldly Scandifriend hazards the thought that in 2012, Denmark makes sense to a number of Brits because it appears cool and right-on. And scrapping hard to be both.

Whigfield: part of a grander modern Danish mosaic

Whigfield: part of a grander modern Danish cultural mosaic

It’s the new Nordic right and left, stupid

The Finnish National Coalition Party has been around as a political entity since the end of the First World War. But it’s difficult not to think that it has only truly come of age in the last six months. For the first time that anyone can remember in modern times, a party defined as liberal conservative – but conservative nonetheless – has both the premiership, through the relatively young Jyrki Katainen, and the presidency-elect, through a record-breaking victory for Sauli Niinistö, to its name.

Both in Finland and in neighbouring Sweden, these are heady times for the centre-right. Swedish conservative Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has just seen off a third Social Democrat leader in the space of just over six years, the hapless Håkan Julholt. That’s the kind of opponent-felling in which Tony Blair specialised in the UK only a few years ago – but from the centre-left instead.

In Sweden and Finland, however, it’s now the traditional centre-left which finds itself in a historical quagmire. After all, Reinfeldt has now carried out feats unheard of since…well, since the birth of the modern Swedish social democratic state itself. The Finnish Social Democrats went into the recent presidential election knowing that departing incumbent Tarja Halonen was one of an unbroken chain of centre-left presidents going back thirty years – but the Social Democrats, fielding a prominent candidate in former PM Paavo Lipponen, managed – wait for it – 6.7pc of all the votes in the first round. Baldly speaking, that’s a shocker. And it’s the left that has been left shell-shocked.

These trends, and the rise of the nationalist right in both countries, point to problems in microcosm for the global centre-left as it fights for credibility. It’s surely suffering a double squeeze both from its moderate conservative opponents and from more populist and hard-core right-wing movements – with traditional left-leaning voters from blue-collar, lower-middle class and middle class backgrounds alike left disillusioned. What’s the enemy doing right? How does the left improve?

Although Reinfeldt has ruffled some feathers by calling for a rise in the retirement age to 75, I am sure he was talking about the same theme (ie retirement and pensions) when I heard him showcasing his best presentational strengths on an edition of Swedish afternoon news radio programme P1 a couple of years ago. No huge fanfare, no spin, no built-up sense of anticipation that the number one elected guy in the country was going to be on the programme – he was basically on and being interviewed within seconds of the programme intro, and sounding more like a neighbour having a chat over the hedge than an aloof, out-of-touch diktat.

the master of neighbourly politico-chat

You could probably say the same of Niinistö and his fondness for roller-skating, not to mention the National Coalition Party’s skilful melding of centrist agenda and inclusive rhetoric – try and imagine UK Prime Minister David Cameron, a supposed paragon of the ‘new right’, hailing the virtues of a modern European welfare state. The centre-right in both Finland and Sweden has cracked an age-old problem that beset it for decades: it has learned to chill out – or at least sound chilled out. And it’s stolen the left’s clothes in the process.

It speaks volumes that Niinistö, although winning easily, had to deal with an unexpected challenger in the second round – not the Social Democrats of course, but the openly gay Green candidate Pekka Haavisto. Had the frontrunner been put out of sync by this surprise turn of events, who knows what might have happened? Maybe Finland would have cast one of the great post-WWII Western European electoral surprises – and delivered a landmark progressive victory alongside a huge slap in the face for the European right at a time when it has been in the ascendancy.

Elsewhere in the Nordics, Helle Thorning-Schmidt has showed the left the way back into power – and given Denmark its first female PM in the process. In Iceland, Social Democrat Johanna Sigurðadóttir has been acclaimed as the world’s first openly lesbian prime minister – having got the top job in the wake of the economic trauma suffered by the country in 2008. Their appointments come after years of a backlash to the cultural revolution of the 1960s and well-mined seam of scattergun liberal-baiting, a variation of which here might be familiar to British readers: ‘Oh typical left, muesli-knitting, gay-loving, one-legged Irish black lesbian proponents who can’t run the economy for toffee, bent on positive discrimination and too un-PC to tell the truth etc. etc. etc.’

Yet if Sigurðadóttir does lose her job, it’s not going to be because she doesn’t tackle the hugely contentious issue of international reimbursement payments and banking profligacy with both a combative streak and a down-to-earth determination to master economic and legal detail. With her government the progenitor of a landmark ban on strip clubs, Sigurðadóttir seems emblematic of the left backlash against the right backlash – definitely not PC if PC means pussyfooting around on sensitive social issues and avoiding some home truths that the left perhaps missed across Europe in the 1990s and 2000s.

As George Monbiot has just argued in The Guardian, the centre-left may well have found itself guilty of this new form of PC – being too scared in the face of an onslaught of right-wing punditry to stand up for the fact that it can and should embrace social, sexual and ethnic diversity. But Sigurðadóttir, if not Haavisto and Thorning-Schmidt, indicate that it’s probably time to acknowledge that this diversity serves it well and is not just nominal positive discrimination. It’s then easier to start getting one’s teeth into economic issues and using the centre-left’s social and economic successes in Northern Europe in the 20th century as a template for new progress.

It’s not going to be easy – at some point, social democrats, liberal-lefties and socialists have to face up to the uncomfortable truth that they have to offer a plausible and idealistic agenda to snuff out a haemorrhage of votes to right-wing parties of every hue. But the message couldn’t be clearer: learn to chill out yourself. And learn to fight back.