Something is rotten in the state of Denmark

Until recently, many saw Denmark as a progressive and outward-looking country – at least that is the picture the more progressive Danes like to cling to today. Given the present political climate of hostility towards immigrants, one might wonder whether this alleged progressiveness was ever sincere, or whether the some of the more narrow-minded, nationalistic tendencies in contemporary Danish society are due to Denmark not being as homogenous and monocultural as it once was. Perhaps these more unappealing qualities had been there all along.

The recent development aid budget cutbacks, described in a previous article, certainly seem symptomatic of the last decade of the minority liberal-conservative government, its alliance with the Right-wing nationalistic Danish People’s Party, and the general tendency of an increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric, narrow-mindedness and populism in Danish politics and Denmark in general. Recurrent tax cuts for the wealthy have also played a significant part in changing the face of Denmark by a financial redistribution that has led to the gradual dismantling of social programmes and protective or regulatory government oversight, and consequently of solidarity – both overarching goals of the liberal-conservative movement as a whole.[1]


Denmark was until recently a relatively homogeneous society. Only during the late sixties did immigration rise significantly in Denmark and this is perhaps the reason why the Danish government and population have taken so long in recognising that Denmark has become a multi-ethnic country with a considerable immigrant community. From having had less than 60.000 immigrants from non-Western countries in the early eighties (out of a population of around 5 million), Denmark now has slightly less than 400.000, or about 7% of the population.  Although this is a relatively steep rise in immigration numbers, percentage-wise it is lower than most other European countries. In the UK, about 9% of the population are immigrants, in Spain and the Netherlands the number is 10%, and in Germany 12%. In Norway and Sweden, countries that are in many ways comparable to Denmark, the numbers are 7% and 12%, respectively.

One of the results of this failure to properly analyse the immigrant “problem” has been a lack of understanding of the immigrant communities that has led to an increased intolerance towards foreigners, especially those of non-Western descent. This can be seen not only in the voting patterns of the Danes, but also in the increasing tendency of the Danish media to portray immigrants negatively that began in the mid-eighties, and in discrimination of job seeking immigrants and their descendents.[2] Another more concrete result of this lack of understanding has been that Denmark now has the harshest and most rigorous immigration laws in the EU, whereas in the eighties it had the most lenient. One of the more controversial laws has been the inappropriately named “starthjælp”  (literally: start help), which stipulates that immigrants and others that have lived abroad for more than one of the last eight years are to be given a significantly lower unemployment benefit payment. In practice, this law mostly affects refugees and their families and it is therefore at odds with article 23 of the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees that states that “The Contracting States shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territories the same treatment with respect to public relief and assistance as is accorded to their nationals”.

Denmark: A polarized country?

There are probably many reasons for the change in the political viewpoint of the Danes and the scepticism that they profess towards foreigners, immigrants and non-Christian religions.[3] The more general influence of changing social conventions has probably played a part in their increasing narrow-mindedness and self-centredness. The rather insincere politeness of Danish social conventions that existed in the conservative, bourgeois fifties and sixties has not been replaced by a more progressive social convention but have simply disappeared or has been replaced by an increasing rudeness, especially towards those who are different from the majority.

Combined with the ideological collapse of the Left after the fall of the Soviet Union, this has meant that selfishness and ideological complacency has become increasingly acceptable, and that ideological statements or proposed policies that embrace selfishness have gained the upper hand. Although this tendency is probably not limited to Denmark, it seems to have manifested itself relatively powerfully in the socio-cultural and political polarisation that Denmark has recently experienced.

According to several surveys,[4] the Danes are not generally more intolerant of immigrants than other countries of the European Union, but the opinions of Danes are more polarised. Many, if not most, mainstream parties have felt compelled to more or less adopt the position of The Right on immigration, and there has been a general political polarisation between the Danish Left, who have generally moved towards a more cultural liberal or multi-cultural “soft” position, and the rest of the political spectrum, from the Social Democrats (and even to some degree the leadership of The Socialist People’s Party) to the Danish People’s Party, that has adopted an increasingly uncompromising position on immigration and immigrants.

One well-known example of this polarisation is the so-called Cartoon Controversy,  where the publication of 12 cartoons, (most of them) depicting the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper, infuriated many Muslims in Denmark and abroad, as well as causing riots, boycotts of Danish products, and the setting ablaze of several Danish embassies in the Middle East. Opinions in Denmark to the publication itself were divided. Much of the Left argued that the cartoons were racist, that Islam and other religions should be respected, and that self-restraint should by exercised in the future – all standard normative multiculturalist arguments. The more hard-line arguments of the Right and a few rogue Left-wingers, on the other hand, defended the freedom of speech that they believed the printing of the Cartoons represented, and opposed what they called the self-censorship and appeasement of dictatorships of the multiculturalists. Whereas the Left were to some extent right in claiming that the cartoons should be seen in the context of the harsh Danish immigration policies and intolerance towards foreigners as a whole, many of the arguments of irate Muslims and Western multiculturalists were rather undermined by the fact that the undemocratic governments of various Muslim countries so clearly used the issue of the cartoons to deflect criticism of their unpopular regimes and that no one protested the fact that an Egyptian newspaper had printed the cartoons in October 2005 – well before the demonstrations and riots of early 2006.

The Environment

Another area that has undergone significant changes under the present liberal-conservative government is that of the environment.  From having had some of the most progressive environmental policies in the world, including the implementation of the world’s first environmental law in 1973, environmental issues became increasingly ignored[5] and huge cuts have been made in environmental funding and grants by the liberal-conservative government.[6] Arguments for these cuts were not technical or political in nature, but purely based on the government prioritising other areas over and above the environment, such as the agricultural sector. The Ministry of the Environment itself had its budgets cut by over 60% within a year and between 300 and 400 state employees working with environmental issues in the ministry or in other administrational positions were fired.[7] In addition to this, many state-subsidized boards and tribunals that worked with environmental issues had their subsidies cut or simply removed, and Bjørn Lomborg, a political scientist and well-known but controversial environmental sceptic, and his Environmental Assessment Institute were given the task of making environmental cost/benefit analyses – code for budget cuts.

An OECD report reveals the effect of the decline of environmental standards, stating in 2007 that “Denmark’s environmental performance is not always high by OECD standards”, and that several areas had in fact declined since 2001, in part due to “unsustainable consumption patterns”, postponement of “ambitious” targets set before 2001, and because Denmark “no longer has a white paper on the environment”. Additionally, Denmark’sgreenhouse gas emissions were falling at a disappointing rate, in part due to the CO2 tax rate being reduced in 2005. Denmark’s ranking in the Environmental Performance Index is another indication of this tendency, Denmark slipping from a disappointing 26th place to a 32nd between 2008 and 2010.

Former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s rhetorical u-turn on the environment in 2006 (he had previously been sceptical of the effects of global warming, claiming that “there is no evidence to substantiate the theory that the polar ice caps are melting” in 1998), and present Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s  role at COP15, heavily criticised by many world leaders as unprepared and disinterested, have hardly been redeeming factors for Denmark or the environment as little effect has come of either. They are more likely to be seen as either a case of too little to late, or as an attempt to indulge the increasingly environmentally interested Danish population and media.

Development aid

Finally, development aid has been another area that has undergone significant changes during the reign of the liberal-conservative government. Denmark had the highest development aid budget, percentage-wise, in the world of over 1% of GDP when the liberal-conservative government won the 2001 general election. But after having cut the development aid budget on several occasions since then, in 2010 to 0.76% of GDP, Denmark has seemingly voluntarily renounced its leading position – especially as other nations have not cut development aid budgets, but are in fact mostly increasing them. The effects of these budget cuts to the worlds poorest are increased by the government’s increasing tendency to use aid resources to fund private sector projects to the detriment of poverty reduction.

Time to change

But how did the coalition of the Liberal Party and the Conservative People’s Party manage to sell these changes to the Danish voters? Throughout its successful election campaign in 2001, the government coalition had managed to sell the Liberal Party’s new, smoother vision of change to the Danish population. In doing so, they more or less adopted the successful strategy and policy packaging of Tony Blair’s New Labour. Anders Fogh Rasmussen had read “The Unfinished Revolution”, written by Blair’s advisor Philip Gould, and was inspired by its proposals and success in facilitating Blair’s 1997 landslide victory. Even the election slogan that Fogh Rasmussen adopted for his campaign in 2001, “Tid til forandring” (literally: “Time for change”), was remarkably similar to that of New Labour’s “Time to Change”.

Adopting large chunks of the policies of the Social Democrats on key issues such as the Welfare State, as Blair had done with Tory policies on i.e. law and order, meant that other less mainstream changes sat more easily with the voters. In effect, the liberal-conservative coalition was saying that voters could have their cake and eat it – they could retain the welfare state and get tax breaks at the same time. Furthermore, Fogh Rasmussen in effect became more of a populist than a liberalist by promoting economical liberalism at the same time as doing away with classical liberal issues of liberty and tolerance to please the Danish People’s Party. The overall political effect of these changes was a more conservative nationalism that brought about a widespread centralisation of power and an almost anti-liberal increase in control over e.g. schools, teachers and academia.[8]

Part of the reason for the sudden and widespread change in focus that came about after the 2001 election had to do with the fact that the minority government had to rely on the Danish People’s Party to command a majority. Previous minority governments (and all recent Danish governments have been minority governments) had been able to command a majority without Right Wing parties such as the Danish People’s Party and its predecessor, the Progress Party, both of who were previously shunned because of their anti-immigrant stance and, in the case of the Danish People’s Party, anti-EU sentiments. Not so Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who even suggested before the election that a coalition with the Danish People’s Party could be a viable option for obtaining the prioritised goal of “system change”.  These changes did accordingly not only come about due to a post-election numbers game in parliament, as some have claimed, but due to a combination of opportunism and a fundamental change in the views of influential Danish politicians and the majority of the Danish population.

So even though Denmark has a relatively small percentage of extreme Right-Wingers voters compared to other European countries, the Danish People’s Party has had an almost unparalleled access to power for a European Right-Wing party over the last decade. The Danish General Election of 2001 shocked foreign and Danish politicians alike. Germany’s Foreign Secretary at the time, Joschka Fischer was one of many who warned against “Danish conditions” spreading throughout Europe,[9] and the uneasiness towards Danish immigration policy and rhetoric has not abated. In January 2010, the party leader of Norweigan right-wing party, the Progress Party, Siv Jensen insisted that her party,” has nothing in common with the Danish People’s Party whatsoever”, not least because their policies on immigration were “too radical”. And the Norwegian Progress party are by no means soft on immigration themselves, as a recent proposal to cut immigration by 90% shows.

In Denmark, prominent Danish politicians, such as former Foreign Ministers Uffe Elleman Jensen,  himself from the Liberal Party, and Mogens Lykketoft from the Social Democrat Party, have recently broken ranks and expressed alarm at what they see as the narrow-mindedness and lack of respect of the Danish population towards immigrants and foreign customs. But harsh as the present laws may seem, the Danish Human Rights Institute’s  recent announcement that the soon to be implemented “Immigration Package” will have a “disintegrating and exclusionary effect”  is proof that the tightening of immigration laws is by no means over.

The future

There are signs that the population have tired of the present government coalition, however. One sign of this is that opinion polls show that both the government’s and Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s popularity has plummeted. There are several reasons for this, such as the tendency of populations to tire of any government that has been in power for many years and the economic downturn. But maybe, just maybe, the Danes have begun to transcend the selfishness and narrow-mindedness that has plagued Danish politics for the last 10-15 years. And maybe, just maybe, they have seen that having one’s cake and eating it is not possible without choking on it – especially now that the effects of the tax breaks have been seen to have brought about the deterioration of public institutions such as schools and hospitals.


In 1998, 42 percent of Danish voters agreed with the statement “immigration is a serious threat against our unique national character/national identity.”  Similarly, 43 percent agreed with the statement “in the longer run, the Muslim countries are a serious threat against Denmark’s security,” and 50 percent with the statement “refugees that have been given a residence permit here in Denmark should be sent home as soon as possible”.[10]

Bertel Haarder: “They are treated as unfortunates. Immigrants find it hard to get out of bed in the morning. They feign illness and make use of sham medical certificates to substantiate this. They are supposed to be available for work but are not. They ought to be made to skin mink, to work for pig-meat producers. They won’t mind. They should be required to take the dirtiest, lowly paid routine jobs. No jobs are bad enough”.[11]

Pia Kjærsgard:  ”Some have claimed that 9/11 set off a clash of civilisations. I beg to differ. A clash of civilisations requires the presence of two civilisations – and this is not the case here. There is only one civilisation – ours”.[12]

Pia Kjærsgaard: ”We are very much opposed to Denmark becoming a multiethnic society – we would much rather work for the cause of Danes than for the increasing foreign hoards”.[13]

The title of this article is one of the most recognisable lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, spoken by one of Hamlet’s sentries, Marcellus, in relation to the mismanagement of the present king of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, and the moral and political corruption that this has led to in his kingdom.

[1] George Lakoff, Thinking points: 102

[2] Flemming Mikkelsen, Indvandring og Integration: 220, 167

[3] Carsten Fenger-Grøn et al red., Når du strammer garnet: 12, 28

[4] Flemming Mikkelsen, Indvandring og Integration: 198

[5] Dansk Miljøpolitik 2002 – en analyse af VK-regeringens første måneder set med miljøbriller, Vogt-Nielsen and Husmer, 2002: 149

[6] Dansk Miljøpolitik 2002 – en analyse af VK-regeringens første måneder set med miljøbriller, Vogt-Nielsen and Husmer, 2002: 7-8

[7] Dansk Miljøpolitik 2002 – en analyse af VK-regeringens første måneder set med miljøbriller, Vogt-Nielsen and Husmer, 2002: 17, 33

[8] Peter Schjødt, Venstre – under liberalismens bekvemmelighedsflag: 9, 88-89

[9] David Trads, Danskerne først!: 7, 8

[10] Jens Rydgren, Radical Right-Wing populism in Sweden and Denmark, The Centre for the Study of European Politics and Society

[11] Bertel Haarder, Den bløde danske kynisme: 83 (my translation)

[12] Pia Kjærsgaard from speech in parliament, 4 October 2001 (my translation)

[13] Pia Kjærsgaard, Men udsigten er god: 267-268 (my translation)

2 Responses to Something is rotten in the state of Denmark

  1. evakersting says:

    Regarding development aid:
    I think funding private sector projects with development money must not be a bad thing. Aid projects should focus more on supporting the emergence of a sustainable, functioning economy, which consists of profitable small and medium sized businesses. This is the only type of aid that can potentially increase Africa’s independence from further aid. The main problem in development policy and budgets in all European states is quality, not quantity, in my opinion.

  2. Pingback: Are the Danes xenophobic? « Stiffkitten's Blog

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