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The same creed: a conversation about Scandinavian democracy with Bo Lidegaard

"In my eyes, there is nothing in the Scandinavia model that suggests that we cannot compete. Actually, there is a lot to suggest that we are the most competitive social model on earth". Interview.

Bo Lidegaard in 2011. Wikimedia Commons/Mogens Engelund. Some rights reserved.

The socially virtuous and fiscally pious Scandinavia tops the most diverse global rankings, from competitiveness to happiness. To be sure, this is not a modern-day Utopia; whether it be mind-numbing conformity or rabid populism, the region has contracted the same viruses that have infected other western societies. Yet, the Scandinavian socio-economic experience is widely admired, as an ideal of American liberals and European progressives (and to the contempt of libertarians from all latitudes).

Danish historian Bo Lidegaard is probably the right person to discuss the specificities and lessons of what he calls the “most competitive social model on earth.” A career diplomat, he was a top diplomatic advisor of succeeding prime ministers and embodies the glorious bureaucratic tradition that sustains democratic institutions in Scandinavia.

As a historian, he has chronicled the origins and development of the modern Danish state and the life of some of its most defining statesmen. His latest book, Countrymen, which recounts the story of the rescue of Danish Jews in 1943, was published late last year in the United States and seven other countries to much critical acclaim, and will be published in the UK in March.

These days, Lidegaard looks out over Danish politics and society from the corner office at Politiken, Denmark’s leading daily, where he has served as editor-in-chief since 2011. His name doesn’t appear on the ballot (though the surname does, as Lidegaard’s younger brother is Denmark’s foreign minister). Yet this diverse background makes him something of a polymath of Danish democracy.

I sat down with him at the beginning of January for a chat on educated peasants, enlightened technocrats, discount supermarket cashiers and the “creed” that binds them. Here are some excerpts.

FT: Let’s first get on the same page. Can you tell me, in a nutshell, what are the main social and cultural sources and resources of Scandinavian democracy? Is there anything that you would argue is unique compared to other mature democracies?

BL: Yes: I think there is one specific aspect that is worth noticing. The idea of democracy as a legal political construction came to Scandinavia inspired by the European movement. The Danish constitution is very much modelled on contemporary European democratic developments.

But this more legalistic approach to democracy—and the rights that come with it—was combined with a very unique version of what was termed enlightenment. This was quite different from the European enlightenment, where it was primarily a question of applying the rational mind; in Scandinavia it was a question of education and of better understanding the role of the individual vis-à-vis the nation.

There was a deep understanding that in order to really take power, people needed more knowledge, more education and a different form of knowledge and education to become "independent, democratic citizens". That meant that the process of democratization entailed a revolution in education: Children’s education—or ’friskoler’, free schools – was a complete revolution; the notion of a young adult’s education—‘folkehøjskoler’ —was linked to a revolution in the agricultural sector and a comprehensive transformation of the economic model.

The result was a profound change in how people saw themselves as free, ‘enlightened’ citizens. It was only a half century after the adoption of the constitution in 1849 that majority rule was established (in 1901), and it took another 15 years before you could actually speak of a ‘rule by the people’ as the women and the poorest got voting rights. The first 50 years in my view was a legal, not a real, democracy. But it paved the way to real democracy by enabling people to become mature by way of the knowledge and the self-respect that made it possible for them to take power.

In the course of the twentieth century three broad processes of inclusion ensued: First the full inclusion of the peasants within economic life and the governing structure. Then the workers taking power gradually and seizing power in 1929, and then of course women entering the labour market and taking power in the two last decades of the twentieth century. This became the popular basis of Danish democracy.

FT: One of the most notable outcomes of this education, and one which any outsider admires in the Scandinavian experience, is the culture of consensus characterizing economic and political relations in this part of the world. From the labour agreements of the 1930s to energy and climate legislation in the 2000s, your democratic institutions seem blessed by a remarkable, systematic ability to find broad compromise across party lines and interest groups. Is this also something that people can learn, that they have been taught how to achieve?

BL: In this tradition of ‘cooperating democracy’, you need to have the strong representation of minorities; not religious and ethnic minorities, but political minorities. We have a broad representation of small parties in parliament and effectively the major parties need their cooperation to form a government. Over time, that developed into a political system where you actually could not get anything done without a majority engaging parties outside the government.

This again entails that when you engage parts of the opposition, legislation will not be rolled back the minute after any change of power, because at that point the new government cannot change what it supported whilst in opposition. Thus, to cement reforms, any government will seek broad majorities.

In Denmark, we call this culture ‘samarbejdende folkestyre’, which means a cooperative people’s rule. The core of this concept is the idea that Danish theologian Hal Koch developed after the Second World War, which argued that democracy is really about the conversation we have with each other, rather than about the legal structure underpinning it: legal rights may be a precondition for having a democracy, but you can have all these rights without having a democracy. During the second half of the nineteenth century, it became apparent that we had all these rights, but we had no democracy. It took real engagement by the people in the system, to create a system where people actually ruled.

Of course, if you don’t have these rights, you do have other problems. But democracy, as we tend to see it is not really about these rights; the starting point for building democracy is a culture of conversation.

This entails the realization that when you and I discuss as two adult citizens in a democracy, the option that you are more right or partly right is always there. And since I don’t presume that you are stupid or that you are pursuing an illegal goal, I need to try to find out why you differ in your assessments from mine. Only when you and I have found the reasons for our disagreement, will we be able to find a meeting ground, and that is a consensus culture.

Maybe we won’t meet in the middle, maybe it is 30 percent you and 70 percent me, and eventually you have to make a decision according to the parliamentary rules of the game. But I must realize that your right to disagree is not primarily a legal right. You shouldn’t need to say ‘I speak with the protection of the constitution,’ you should never be forced to do that. I should respect your point of view as a real right you have as a citizen to have a valid, different opinion.

A Swedish labour demonstration in 1890. Wikimedia Commons/Herr Axelsson. Public domain.

FT: Let us move to the implementation phase. The role of your bureaucracy is often mentioned as very important in this democratic process. Indeed one distinctive element of the Scandinavian model is a civil service that is regarded as effective, transparent, providing continuity to policy-making and to a large degree autonomous from political power. But in a time of crisis such as we are currently experiencing, the legitimacy of many unelected bureaucratic structures, such as the European Commission, is also contested. From what source does Scandinavian bureaucracy draw its legitimacy? What is its optimal role in any democratic process?

BL: I agree that bureaucracy is a strong factor in society on the Scandinavian model. Part of the justification for this is that the government undertakes a much larger role in our society than in other societies, because we have this universal tax-financed welfare system. You could see this as an ‘insurance policy’ that every citizen is obliged to pay in order to have a very comprehensive coverage.

If you look at it this way, the state apparatus is actually quite cheap and effective, and you get more service at a lower price than you do in most other societies. And yes, the bureaucracy has a very strong role in ensuring continuity. It is linked to the role of the ‘samarbejdende folkestyre’, and the consensus culture: all major reforms have been across the political middle and changing their direction is a very slow process. This makes the political system rigid and inherently conservative. Yet, at the same time it makes it possible to undertake reform - and it provides for stability, transparency and accountability.

A fundamental dimension of Danish bureaucracy is that it is not political. The civil servants of course are subject to law, but answer only to the cabinet minister. Underlying the notion of being a civil servant lies the concept of serving the general good.

Bureaucrats are servants of a perceived common interest. Then again, how we interpret the common interest is a political issue, which is eventually decided by elected politicians. In some very specific cases and often high-profile cases, you have this dilemma: Who is the civil servant to serve before anything else: its political chiefs, the bureaucracy itself, or the law? It is a very persistent view, that it is always the law, beyond everything else.

‘Good governance’ in Danish means that you need complete transparency and consistency in the way you serve the citizens. That is because the welfare state is built on the rights of the individual. Your allowances are based on objective criteria. Quite what you are entitled to depends on your individual situation. Under the law, the bureaucracy is obliged to make sure that you get exactly what you are entitled to, no more and no less. That is a very different role from that of a bureaucracy that serves the interests of those who are in power. Bureaucracy’s primary function is to serve you as a citizen and make sure that what you claim in terms of education, health, social security, your parents’ social security, your children’s social security, is delivered to you according to the law. The bureaucracy has the obligation to make sure that you get a, b and c, but also that you are not getting away with getting d, because that is not what you are entitled to.

FT: Good governance,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama has argued, “is a kind of aristocratic phenomenon.” One common criticism of the model you describe, and of role of bureaucrats within it, has to do with class. In this reading, the elites are detached, perpetuate the economic orthodoxy, and become impermeable not only to change, but also to the needs and demands of other segments of society. The rise of populist movements in the United States and Europe testify to this danger. I suppose this objection might be particularly poignant in Scandinavia, where the welfare state and the mode of governance that implemented it were traditionally associated with social-democratic domination. How do you answer that criticism?

BL: The bureaucracy does not hail from the upper classes; social representation in the bureaucracy is actually very balanced, you will find people of every background. Very few bureaucracies in the world will be less socially biassed.

The real dividing line is in the way urban people live and conceive of life: you have employment, you get a salary, you have free time, you have holidays, you get paid when you are ill, you get paid during holidays. You can change your position by climbing the ladder, or you can choose to work less and have free time for leisure.

This is an urban, modern lifestyle, but a significant portion of people do not live that way. That is true for farmers or in small businesses. You are a researcher, you know this: You may formally receive a salary for x amount of hours at work, but it has no meaning for you, because basically you are a person who is supposed to deliver something. The amount of time it takes for you to deliver it is an unknown even to yourself. And then you read a good book by Fukuyama - is that work or leisure? It is hard to tell. You might enjoy reading it in your holiday, but you are working. Of course when you are playing with your kids, you know that that is leisure, but then again - if you have a good idea, you will definitely find a quarter of an hour to make a few notes or to check a few e-mails. That is a very different way of conceiving work and leisure.

FT: But one could turn this into a class argument: someone working as a cashier in Netto [a discount supermarket chain] could not make the point you just made.

BL: Yes he can, because the cashier in Netto is of the same creed as the bureaucrat, except that his education and salary are lower than most bureaucrats. But he is urban, he knows when he’s at work, when he is behind the cashier, exactly like the bureaucrats. But you as a researcher, or the fisherman or the farmer or the owner of a little truck company who actually earns a lot more money than you, they are different.

It doesn’t have to do with whether you are rich or poor, but with whether you are paid a salary or not. X number of working hours amounts to a certain salary; when I am not at work, I am off. Cashiers and civil servants may be very different socially, but they are very alike in the way they construct their lives.

The seats of the Danish Parliament are taken by the Youth Parliament members. Demotix/N. Petersen. All rights reserved.

FT: So in a sense the ‘culture of conversation’ you were referring to before, has really got to do with bringing these different lifestyles into the same arena and then holding the centre in terms of policy-making. But this way of proceeding is being increasingly challenged: by immigrants, the economic crisis, globalization. How does the model that you have described respond to these challenges? Is it sustainable?

BL: That is of course the million dollar question that we are all asking ourselves. My answer is clear – yes it is. But it definitely isn’t without constant reform. One has to remember the paradox of Scandinavia: these three or four societies have for the last twenty years been among the ten most competitive countries on earth. They have all been among the countries with highest employment. These are also the countries with the highest number of people on public allowances, the countries with the highest general taxation and with the biggest public sectors.

But these are also the countries with the most efficient public sectors. So, you have both very encouraging and very discouraging aspects. In my eyes, there is nothing in the model that suggests that we cannot compete. Actually, there is a lot to suggest that we are the most competitive social model on earth.

But staying competitive entails that we cope with the challenges. One key challenge is inclusion in the productive parts of society. In the past 150 years, we were extremely successful in including the peasants; it happened again with the workers; it happened again with women. The big question now is whether we are able to deal with the 15-20 percent of the population that is on the wrong side of the labour market. Not because they are ill or old, but because they are uneducated and outside the social contract of society, including a segment of new immigrants.

The question is how to include them as productive citizens. If we can’t, the social expense (and not only the allowances) of having people in society that are not integrated will be unsustainable. So for us as societies, the challenge is to integrate these people as highly productive members of society and also as empowered members of society, because those two things go together.

FT: Yours is an optimistic narrative: you did it with peasants, workers, women - then you should be able to do it again with immigrants.

BL: Exactly, I like that narrative. These three groups were all reaching out for power. The peasants wanted power, the workers wanted power, the women insisted on getting it. Society was actually not eager to let them, but they took it.

And don’t forget, when the peasants asked for power, the old aristocracy said that they were stupid, uneducated, didn’t want to defend their country, and had proven themselves unable to bear the responsibilities of power. When the workers asked, they were uneducated and revolutionary Marxists. When the women followed suit, we also knew that they couldn’t drive a car, couldn’t think strategically, and couldn’t be a partner in power. The reasons for all these people not to be part of power were well established and unchallenged until they turned out to be wrong; not just a little wrong, completely wrong.

The main difference when it comes to the immigrants is linked to the numbers. At the time, farmers and workers were majorities, women of course made up half of society. Immigrants are not. But the notion that immigrants or other significant parts of the population should not be able to become a productive part of society doesn’t hold. This is not the same thing as saying that it will be easy. But that we are saddled with a segment of society that for eternity will be unproductive and not part of power - this is nonsense.

About the authors

Bo Lidegaard is editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper Politiken and author, most recently of Countrymen (Atlantic Books, 2014). 

Fabrizio Tassinari is Head of Foreign Policy at the Danish Institute for International Studies and Senior non-resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. He is working on a book on the Scandinavian model and the future of the west. 

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