And so to Denmark…

Ian Parsley has been to Denmark, and is impressed with the Scandinavian economic model in practice. His picture of the Opera House in Copenhagen hardly does it justice, but it is a fine example of audacious public art, paid by private subscription and subsequently donated to the state. Nothing in Belfast even remotely compares. It is, as Ian notes, hard for foreigners to comprehend (and difficult to replicate), though the country’s communitarian mores are captured in the highly influential educational philosophy of Nikolaj Gruntvig’s summed up in his line: “Only willing hands make light work.” Northern Ireland’s two untrusting tribes, it would seem, have some way to go before constructing build a healthy, inclusive and progressive society.

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  • Harry Flashman

    *Northern Ireland’s two untrusting tribes, it would seem, have some way to go before constructing build a healthy, inclusive and progressive society.*

    The reason for that is rather obvious Mick and contained in the sentence itself; “two tribes”. Danish society was for years remarkably homogenous, so it was easy for them all to get along. If like Belgium or Northern Ireland, Denmark had a sizable minority which didn’t share the views of society of the majority then I doubt whether Denmark would have achieved what it did.

    What if Danish society suddenly attained a sizable minority ill at ease with the consensus how would that work out?

    Well let’s see, does “Danish” and “cartoons” ring any bells?

  • Brian Crowe


    Just to partly agree with Harry about the link between the ‘Scandinavian’ economic model and homogenous societies. David Goodhart in ‘Prospect’ has been pushing this theme for a while now – that ‘the model’ is reliant on a particular cultural context, rather than just a set of economic policies.

    I guess I would also have questions about the phrase “Scandinavian model”. Denmark has a labour market based on the ‘flexicurity’ approach also promoted in Austria; Norway is outside the EU; Sweden and Finland are in the Eurozone, Denmark isn’t.

    Perhaps more a question of models than model?

  • qubol

    I guess this plays to Ian’s belief that Nationalists in particular must be fully committed to making the north work (like getting behind the NI football team).

  • DC

    “David Goodhart in ‘Prospect’ has been pushing this theme for a while now – that ‘the model’ is reliant on a particular cultural context, rather than just a set of economic policies.”

    Northern Europe has always had a strong tradition of producing great operatic performances, the rest of the other musical cultures were greatly ruffled around WWII, due to certain government administrations, but opera seemed to survive and as you suggest it still remains quite salient.

    But the question is this, can local politicians work together to achieve other feats. At the moment such elected politicians can’t even get agreement as to a new stadium let alone anything as culturally rich as an opera house.

  • IJP


    Scandinavia does indeed counter John Hume’s oft-quoted, but in fact (as so often) false, dictum that “The most successful societies are the diverse ones”.

    Very often that’s not the case, as you note.

    Mind, NI’s population is actually more of the same race, religion and language than Denmark’s…


    I still think any visitor to Scandinavia would be hard pushed not to observe that there are obvious similarities in the cultural, social and economic models of all three Scandinavian models (i.e. Denmark, Sweden, Norway; having never visited Finland, I wouldn’t comment on it).

    For the record, Sweden is of course also outside the eurozone. Norway has in fact implemented more EU legislation than any EU member state bar one… Denmark.


    I’ve never said Nationalists in particular must be committed to making NI work.

    We should all be committed to making NI work.

    To be otherwise is to render discussion of our constitutional future pointless and to increase rather than decrease the lack of trust in our society.

    If we all show that committed, great projects such as Copenhagen’s Opera House will be a worthy reward. And we may even learn how to build cross-border motorways properly…

  • Brian Crowe

    IJP – I’m cowering in the corner re: Sweden and the eurozone. What can I say in my defence? I’m a eurosceptic.

  • IJP


    Stop being so honourable!

    Just say it was a typo! 🙂

  • Brian Crowe

    Lol IJP, but in a vain attempt to re-establish some crebility in this discussion …

    Goodhart’s essy “Too Diverse?” is in the Feb 04 edition of Prospect – basically arguing that the the Scandinavian model/s cannot be translated to the UK.

    He also constrasts Sweden’s relatively open immigration policy with Denmark’s much more restrictive approach. This, he says, will increase the differences between the Swedish and Danish models – what he calls the “solidarity/diversity trade-off”.

    Now there is a phrase we could have an interesting chat about in NI …

  • IJP


    I’m not remotely suggesting the ‘Nordic Model’ is transferable anywhere outside Scandinavia.

    Also, there are indeed differences – of the three, Denmark is by far the smallest in area (but also the only one with external territories), which impacts on social and infrastructural provision; Norway the most localized (it’s quite “Irish” in the way that local identity is all-important, not so in the other two), which I would say impacts on mobility (and probably also on its attitude towards the EU); each has a different set of natural resources (or not); and so on.

    Nevertheless, there is much I reckon that is transferable to NI, and much similar that does happen here (it’s just less common and less obvious).

    For example, Mick‘s introduction into the debate of how the Copenhagen Opera House was funded is very interesting. It’s not a million miles from how the forthcoming renovations of the Old School in his own home town will be funded, after an outstanding, civic-led, funding campaign lasting several years. So these things do happen here, just not on the same scale. There’s no reason why they can’t be extended, though – if that means prioritising “civic pride” over “national pride” and “solidarity” over “division”, so be it.

  • DC

    Apparently this Nordic model is built upon low expectations:

    Not bad for keeping it simple, especially considering the Danes are about to build another bridge across Europe, this time to Germany, where all Europe’s moneymen are gathering to snap up land to build properties to ensure they cash in when the expected boom happens when the bridge completes.

    Maybe there is something in what IJP states about nationalism working together with unionism.

    On reflection, maybe IJP is asking us all to lower our expectations and be happy with what we have; so forget about a united Ireland and make yourself a good deal happier in life.

    And, in contrast, for the unionists – stuff your dreams of having a thriving private sector economy just be content with low paid public service jobs and remain subservient to Westminster – accept it and be grateful.

    So perhaps more can be achieved if we at times lower our expectations, with a bridge over to Scotland the outcome.

  • Mick Fealty


    It’s an excellent piece (I think we blogged it on Slugger at the time, or at the very least the two parter he wrote for the Observer on the same theme). I also agree (having witnessed how the education system is struggling first hand) about the challenge of growing ethnic minorities, that are presenting a challenge right across Denmark, not simply in the relative metropolis of Copenhagen.

    There is also the question of slow build. The Scandinavian model is based on substantial and long term buy in from Danish society. It has retained a substantial and prosperous agricultural sector, whilst also sustaining substantial interests in international trade. It is undoubtedly an attractive place to live.

    Denmark also distinguishes itself as determinedly Eurosceptic. If I recall correctly, one of the first triggers for anxiety was fear that the EU would force it to adopt poorer standards in environmental regulation.

    Anyhoo… you don’t necessarily need to assemble all preconditions to draw lessons from ‘another place’. But when I look at Belfast’s public art, it hard to escape the conclusion that since the Victorian City Hall), nothing stands out as ‘world class’ (or even particularly intelligent) architectural statements (though I do have a personal spot for the Waterfront Hall).

    It may be that too much is left to limited public sector budgets, and the limiting factors that committees bring to the game. Also our underpowered private sector is neither obviously committed to Belfast, nor capable of delivering the equivalent of the Operaen.

    On a slightly different tack, there is a culture of pragmatism in Denmark, that is almost entirely absent in NI. They are prepared to try new solutions where old ones have broken down or no longer answer contemporary problems. Danish Design is a cliche, but it connotes the combination of utility and aesthetic beauty. That is hard (if not impossible) to replicate.

    Maybe that arises from cultural homogeniety. Or maybe it is just in the mix. Or maybe on some level, it is matter of individual/societal volition.

  • DC

    I think the story around Denmark is fascinating but as is the case in Europe you really can’t look to closely at Denmark without considering the influence of living immediately next door to Europe’s biggest market economy and indeed the third biggest economy in the world – the German economy. With giving that consideration, the influence it has played culturally with Denmark should not also go unnoticed; hence the passion for opera.

    Danish agriculture as mentioned is clear to see on the shelves of Tesco and others, great Danish produce, but the key ingredient is access to European markets and indeed Northern Ireland being one. Danish bacon anyone?

    I was reading also that German milk supplies are being hit due to South East Europe’s prolonged dry spells, causing a stir with the population because local prices are going up – for the first time in decades! But this may likely have a positive knock on effect in Denmark increasing its exports even more?

    I often find such comparisons with Belfast encouraging as it helps to stimulate thought to strive for more for the region, but again we have to be realistic.

    The biggest shame was when H&W closed its doors. As an engineering base it was a key asset and from which a lot more could have been achieved but was cut loose. The demise of H&W dimmed local engineering innovation.

    I think it is about time constitutional objectives were compromised as per GFA and much more thought given towards seeking ethnic harmony under this dispensation allowing for breathing space on other pressing matters.

    For too long vital key energy has been divested on constitutional politics. As we speak, Sinn Fein for example, are probably mulling over some putative constitutional reform strategy – just think of the hours spent just focusing on that.

    On a serious note, constitutional expectations do need to be lowered in priority, or else those advocating ethno-religious policies ought to be overtaken by a new political mainstream to develp a needed critical mass. Any suggestions on ethno-harmonisation and political reconciliation very welcome.

    Of course, all this set against the backdrop of Northern Ireland’s talent leaving to the UK not to return. Another shame in itself.

    Finally, no, there really isn’t much in Belfast architecturally and today when I was in I actually witnessed the falling brick incident first hand. What we have isn’t even structurally sound and is clear proof of the points raised above; what we have of the old-style Belfast has been allowed to fall into ruin while energies and devotions poured into political culture clashes.

    Here’s the link to the brick incident:

  • Dewi

    I’ve always been very fond of Swedish models…

  • DC

    Oh what Ericsson phone do you have? I like Finnish – a nice saucy Nokia. 😉

  • IJP

    Not wishing to hog the debate, but just to re-align it – Denmark does have a thriving private-sector economy, probably freer from government intervention than the UK’s (and certainly than NI’s)!

    Any idea what the state minimum wage is in Denmark or Sweden?

  • Just one slight issue with the elevation of the “Scandavian economic model” – it’s a basket-case. The Irish model is much superior – maybe all Ian had to do was board the Enterprise. (The train, not the spaceship) 😉

  • Brian Crowe


    Is the debate less about Denmark and more about how the rest of Europe generally invests in and protects ‘the public realm’. Simon Jenkins, just before the French presidential election, (and, yes, recognising France’s economic malaise) said:

    “France takes seriously the protection of its urban and rural environment. It values civic life: witness the cleanliness, security and confidence of municipalities there compared with Britain’s. Public services work. France’s trains run far and fast. Towns and cities, parks and museums are beautiful — as are even motorway service stations. The public realm in France has taste and bravura. In Britain it is grotty”.

    Perhaps overstated, but you get the point.

  • Cruimh

    Hopefully the bill for repairs to Royal Avenue and costs incrued will be sent to Connolly House ? 😉

  • Mick Fealty

    How so David? The economic figures are ambivalent (particularly in Sweden, where the Social Democrats maintain a singular hegemony), but they hardly indicate basket case. Besides, the Danes were first to abandon Nordic devotion to Social Democracy: the right of centre Fogh Rasmussen has easily won the last two elections though he may have a tougher fight to win his third in 2008/9.

    The Anglo model may have been the only practical solution available to the Republic (which by the end of the 90s was extremely short on long term government resources), but it doesn’t preclude drawing lessons from elsewhere, particularly with regard to long term development of public infrastructure.

  • DC

    “Hopefully the bill for repairs to Royal Avenue and costs incrued will be sent to Connolly House ?”

    Good to see you have adopted a reconciliatory spirit.

    It’s a petty people from Connolly House weren’t standing beneath it at the time. 🙂

    It was a very bizarre moment what with the Police cordoning the area off and this pile of rubble strewn on the ground. It was very embarrassing once people had realised what had happened but more to the point, people or tourists could have been seriously hurt thankfully no-one was.

    The Belfast tours bus is based on that corner.

  • Cruimh

    “Good to see you have adopted a reconciliatory spirit. ”

    If it had been London, Coventry etc etc I’d have suggested the German Embassy 🙂

  • IJP


    They’re not that ambivalent really – Denmark and Sweden are very well off, almost no matter how you measure it (viz OECD, Eurostat, UN Human Development Index, etc etc etc)!


    That’s a legitimate debate, but it’s not really the one my blog intended.

    I am being specific to what is commonly known as the ‘Nordic Model’ (as opposed to the ‘Continental’ or ‘Mediterranean’).

    Purely anecdotally (but also, as aforementioned, statistically), Denmark, Sweden and Norway are all significantly better off than France. As, these days, are the UK and Ireland. (Mind, France does also build good bridges, I’d grant that!)

    Underlying my blog are three points/theories for discussion:
    – innovation is important in any social model;
    – euro-scepticism (in its true sense) may not be a bad thing if positively applied;
    – the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Nordic’ models aren’t actually as different as commonly assumed.


    Care to have a go at answering my question?

    I mean, you don’t strike me as a fan of a high minimum wage, so perhaps you’d like to present us with Ireland’s as well as Sweden’s and Denmark’s for consideration?

  • The Dubliner

    Denmark’s welfare state is maintained by a tax burden that the Executive doesn’t have the discretionary power to inflict on the North’s taxpayers (thank g-d), so that rules the Scandinavian model out. And besides, the North needs to harmonise with the South (and not simply so that we can easily annex it in a few decades!) because both parts of the island are natural fits in that what works for the South will likely work well for the North, even where the macroeconomics and legal framework can’t be realigned. Moving away from subsidy-dependency and toward a self-sustaining entrepreneurial culture is the way forward – and the DUP’s Keynesian-style economics (private enterprise and a bit of a doddery nanny-state) make good transitional sense. The North (with its barroom culture of political leftism) isn’t mentally ready for the South’s laissez-faire economics, anyway – and would probably faint if they knew how right-wing it actually is in terms of trade policy, and regulation, fiscal burden, etc. Given the talent of its people, the North will make dramatic progress in the years irrespective of its present confusion and handicaps.

  • Brian Crowe


    I remain uneasy about using the term ‘Nordic model’ except in an incredibly loose way. Not only are there significant differences between the various states in terms of economic and welfare policy, but I think many assume the ‘Nordic model/s’ to have frozen in time – somewhere in the 1950s.

    Social democracy no longer has unchallenged ascendancy in Scandinavia (something I’m assuming a European Liberal as much as someone associated with the EPP-ED would welcome). The centre-right changed the Norwegian political landscape with its victories in 1981 and 2001, resulting in important pro-market reforms. With Sweden’s New Moderate government and Denmark’s Lib-Con coalition, the centre-right is clearly a significant force in the Nordic countries.

    In the 1990s, Sweden and Finland both moved to significantly reduce their tax burdens – this backs up your point about the differences between the Nordic and Anglo models perhaps not being as great as commonly assumed. But it also undermines any notion that the Nordic model/s are somehow the property of Social Democracy.

    I also endorse what you say about Nordic Euro-scepticism – which is, from what I can see, more measured than what we sometimes see in the UK. A few commentators have been mentioning how the European Commission is aware of the cultural fracture that runs across Europe – the UK and Nordic countries on one side, with middle and southern Europe on the other. (OK, it’s not a clear-cut fracture, but broadly true.) I don’t want to get slapped down for pushing this further, but and Mark Mardell’s blog (under “Aristotle and the Stoics”) suggest that the cultural origins of attitudes to the EU are worth us in NI thinking about.

    To finish with, back to the point I first made yesterday on Goodhart’s ‘solidarity/diversity’ trade-off and the Nordic models. I’m not a convinced fan of Samuel Huntington (‘The Clash of Civilisations’), but this comment on Sweden maybe has some relevance for any discussion of the Nordic model/s:

    “Swedes are probably the most unreligious people in Europe, but you cannot understand this country at all unless you realise that our institutions, social practices, families, politics, and way of life are fundamentally shaped by our Lutheran heritage”.

    So, whatever the differences in the Nordic model/s, it is perhaps this which gives them common features.

  • IJP

    The Dubliner

    In what way are both parts of the island ‘natural fits’?

    The fundamental economic differences were, in fact, the prime reason for partition. They probably still are.


    In many ways I think we’re coming at this from the same angle, just prioritising different points from it!

    My suggestion is that the whole point of the ‘Nordic Model’ is that it is prepared to innovate – and indeed replace ‘social democracy’ with something nearer what EPP-ED-ites or ALDE-ites would approve. But then, my problem is more with the phrase ‘social democracy’ than ‘Nordic Model’ in the first place. I do, for example, still await an answer to my earlier minimum wage question, which is an interesting one!

    Interestingly, the business reason I was in Denmark was to give a presentation to the Social Liberals on religion in politics. Doing this, I challenged the orthodoxy along the lines you and Huntington suggest – one of the four workshop questions I posed was: “Are all nations fundamentally religious?” My basic view is that yes, they are, and therein lies a significant challenge for us all in NI.

    In short, I never once suggested the ‘Nordic Model’ was social-democratic. In fact, I was hinting at the contrary – basically at the point you’re suggesting, that the common base is not political theory, but socio-cultural practice. And for ‘socio-cultural practice’, we may well really mean ‘religion’…

  • Dewi

    “Socio cultural practice” – Good point worth exploring.
    Hypothesis being that a primary reason for Denmark and the other Nordic nations’ economic well being and, dare I say, relative happiness, is cultural homogenity.

    Is that a fair summary of what you are suggesting IJP ?

  • Brian Crowe


    It’s been a good day for ALDR-EPP/ED co-operation then.

  • A navvy writes

    There is no minimum wage system operating in Denmark. The trade unions agree their own levels of pay for each sector in collective agreements with the bosses.
    Just to add a social comment, the mimimum wage has now become the maximum for many low paid workers both in the UK and the Republic.