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17 May 1999

No place for a flashy red sports car

The Danes' hatred of ostentation is manifest in their ten-year-old Peugeots, a queen who smokes and

By Charles Jennings

There’s a sign at Copenhagen airport, along with the no- smoking graphics and the DSB state railway pointers, saying something along the lines of: “Welcome to the people’s republic of Denmark! Eighty per cent of our children between three and six attend free nurseries; unemployment benefit is a statutory right, at 90 per cent of the unemployed’s previous wage; maternity leave of up to 24 weeks is a statutory right; education is free and continues through life; around 50 per cent of your income will go back to the state in tax; around 90 per cent of the population enjoys an approximately identical standard of living; up to two-thirds of the working population is either directly employed by government or indirectly financed by it; Lego is a metaphor for an ordered society; equality is our birthright” – plus a few other things. After all, it’s what the rest of the world expects: the last socialist state in Europe, defiantly sticking two fingers up at the unravelling of state provisions and the global infection of free-market solutions, and turning itself into an economic basket-case in the process – a nation of men with sandy-coloured beards and women with square, pious faces stubbing out your cig and shaking the loose change from your pockets to pay for a creche in Aarhus.

All of which is true and, at the same time, a blatant lie. When you do get to Copenhagen airport, every no-smoking sign will have a Dane placidly lighting up in front of it. Worse than that, outside the airport they love nothing more than a clean, purposeful industrial estate (often with a tall factory chimney painted in bright colours, like the giraffe-painted stack next to an Odense brewery), exporting high-value products, tipping their balance of payments neatly into the black.

It also turns out that one of their more respected MPs, Jakob Haugaard, is a former comedian who got elected to parliament on a platform of compulsory standardisation of vacuum cleaner bags. Denmark’s not even a republic: Queen Margrethe II is recognised as being both entirely equal in the eyes of all other Danes but, at the same time, queenly and not of the same clay. She is loved and respected in a way that Elizabeth II can only dream of, she is famed for her watercolours and she smokes 60 a day. They like a joke, the Danes.

I only know this because I was persuaded to go there by a friend of mine who’d moved with his Danish girlfriend to Funen (the middle of the three big Danish islands) and had his British car impounded because he was unable to pay the several thousand pounds of import tax. Since this was a lot more than the value of the car, he was pretty wild when the authorities took his old Escort away to the wrecker’s, broke it up for scrap, crushed the remainder and handed him back his licence plates with a “fuck you” smile. Being politically in the libertarian/anarchist camp, this hit him hard. As did a temporary income tax rate of 128 per cent – the result of a small anomaly that his Danish auditor failed to warn him about. As did the need for a national ID number in order to open a bank account, the mind-blowing complexity of mortgage provisions and the omnipotence of the local government office. He spent most of the early days incandescent against the intrusions of the state and the passivity of a race that puts up with them.

By the time I got there, things had calmed down. He’d made his peace with the tax authorities, who actually charge a basic income tax of only 6 per cent: the bulk of one’s tax bill goes on local taxes for the local district, or Kommune, and for the country’s larger organisational subdivisions. He also had a daughter and bought a very old car to replace his other very old car – but then, he could really do no other than buy a very old car, because almost all Danes drive old cars in order to avoid paying the 180 per cent duty levied on new car sales. The place abounds in decade-old Nissans and Peugeots.

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Cars are symptomatic of the whole Danish approach to society and material well-being. In Britain, a fancy new car is the single most obviously galling, most mobile way for anyone to boast of their financial status. Danes simply do not have this problem. Not having an indigenous car industry helps, but they also recognise that a functional, environmentally thoughtful society depends not on flaunting your wealth on the road, but on evincing a degree of modesty in your personal transport and a commitment to public mass transit systems (such as the railways, whose inter-city service is heaven on rails). Couple this specific approach to modern automotive social life with the larger picture of a heavily redistributive fiscal system, in which up to 60 per cent of GDP may at any one time be taken up in the form of government transfers, and you can see how the Danish ambition of a society of equals can become a reality.

The problem for any outsider is that Danish socialism is not a choice that has been rationally arrived at, but a deeply instinctive set of preferences put into practice. Denmark enjoys a kind of irrational socialism; and it comes as the product of a group of unique national influences, plus a tolerance of contradictions.

The first influence (but equal among all influences, this being Denmark) is a belief in something called the “Jante law”, as codified by the novelist Aksel Sandemose some time before the second world war. In a satirical commentary on the Danish national character, Sandemose expounded a sort of ten commandments of reductive Danish niggardliness, including no 3: “Thou shalt not presume that thou art any wiser than us“; and no 8: “Thou shalt not presume that thou art going to amount to anything”. This is the Jante law, and looked at critically it is a gloomy formalisation of the Danes’ loathing of anyone who tries to get ahead, who puts on airs and graces, who, if you like, has ambitions for himself. On the other hand, you could argue that it’s more a kind of virtuous modesty with compelling social justifications.

Danes seem uncomfortable with it, citing it as a prime national influence one minute, disowning it the next. “Don’t think that we’re trying to say ‘you can’t have anything’,” they try to explain, “but it’s true that we don’t like any kind of ostentation.” The Jante law sees to it that most people drive old cars, that they live in markedly similar low-rise houses, wear identical clothes and pursue comparable leisure activities. Functional Jante law results in – to Anglo-Saxon eyes – a stunning egalitarianism.

Coupled with this is the teaching of Pastor Nikolai Frederik Grundtvig, whose rise to prominence after the Danish loss of Schleswig-Holstein to the Germans in 1864 is still talked about as recent history, bordering on current affairs. It was at this point that Denmark went into a collective depression; having lost every scrap of the territory it had spent a thousand years acquiring, it turned on itself to search for a new way forward. Grundtvig’s answer was education. “The spiritual architect of modern Denmark,” said one Dane, while a young copywriter pitched him as a “cross between John Wesley and Queen Victoria”, which makes you wonder how many English copywriters could name two Danish icons of the past two centuries. The theme of “education, education, education” was picked up and made reality by one Kristen Kold, the father of the modern Danish educational system, and now bears fruit in the eagerness of Danes both to see their schooling through and to come back and do endless night-school courses in later life.

The problem with all this, as with the Jante law fixation and the national love of consensus, is that it’s inexplicable. “In the genes,” was as far as a bearded man with a pipe was prepared to go when I quizzed him about it. “We just do everything by consensus. It’s the only way for us.” Charming and reasonable though he was, I did feel a momentary need to hit him, pointing out that most of the rest of the world finds consensus a difficult, often impossible goal, and that ascribing Danish socialism to biology was both smug and unhelpful. But it’s in the genes, along with an Elvis Presley obsession (the only Elvis museum in the world outside the US is in Odense) and a Protestant – strictly, Lutheran – work ethic that commonly sees people start at 7am and has helped Denmark become the 12th richest country in the world on a per capita basis.

If it wasn’t for this single missing component, the element of explicability, then Denmark could provide a wonderfully handy template for modern Britain. Forget all that co-opting of Danish reluctance to change by John Major at the time of the Maastricht ratification. Blair could lift Danish unscientific socialism wholesale and transplant it to the UK. After all, we have so much in common. Having lost our dominions and most of our world influence, we, like 19th-century Denmark, are casting around trying to find a suitable place for ourselves in the world and a realistic set of national aims. Like Denmark a hundred years ago, we want to believe that education is the way forward, to make what we have better. Like Denmark in the 19th century, we could, just about, found our progress on a broadly spiritual approach given an agnostic gloss (Blair, passim). Even the devolution of spending powers to local authorities – with accompanying democratic reinforcements – might play as well over here as it does in Denmark, with its multitudes of Kommunes.

Sceptics point out that the other advantage Denmark enjoys is a small population (just over five million, rather less than that of London) with almost no pluralistic or multicultural elements to deal with (which means that anyone not Danish may well find it hard to gain acceptance: a few years ago, Denmark charitably took in a group of Somali refugees, only to leave them helpless and unintegrated in a housing project outside Odense). Britain, being ten times the size and ten times as culturally diverse, could never opt for a particular path and then expect everyone to stick with it. “We are not a people,” Danes like to say, “we are a tribe.”

But however irrational the Danish system is, it is not implausible. However tiresomely ordered the country physically appears, it combines prosperity with equality in a way very few other nation states can manage. And whatever else it is, it is kind of admirable. “I mean, they have got a point,” my libertarian/anarchist friend confessed. “And the trains are brilliant. You can even smoke on them.”

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