Borgen and Scotland: A Love Affair Founded on Self-Congratulation

6 February 2013

Borgen – the title refers to the Danish equivalent of Holyrood or Westminster – has been terrifically popular amongst those people interested in sub-titled political dramas from Denmark. I fancy that viewers in England have simply enjoyed the programme for what it is: a well-made but impossibly smug piece of “progressive” political propaganda. In Scotland, however, it has been seen as something different: a glimpse of the future. Or, at any rate, one future.

In one sense this is reasonable. Even if it is only a TV show, one can see why Scots – and nationalists especially – should be thrilled by a drama showing how the ineffably right-on leader of a small northern European nation can make a mark upon the world. No wonder Nicola Sturgeon is on record expressing her admiration for Borgen.

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I considered the recent Borgenfest for this week’s Think Scotland column:

 It is not a surprise that Borgen should be such a hit with parts of the Scottish intelligentsia. Borgen, after all, spends most of its time congratulating its audience on the soundness of its opinions (and they are opinions, not, of course, anything so vulgar as prejudices).

Borgen never seriously challenges its audience, never really doubts the ineffable wisdom of its own holy progressivism. It makes the West Wing look intellectually honest. At least the West Wing occasionally admitted that some political differences might be the result of honest disagreement and not, generally speaking, proof of some appalling character flaw on the part of whichever character fails to hold the proper view.

So Borgen cheats, I think, and, by doing so, is right at home in Scotland. The deck is stacked. No wonder Birgitte Nyborg – the fictional Prime Minister played by Sidse Babett Knudsen – is so popular at Holyrood. Borgen specialises in the politics of smugness.

Viewed more generally, there is a move afoot to “brand” Scotland as some kind of member of the Nordic “family of nations”. In one sense this is understandable. Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland are each attractive, relatively well-governed countries. Who would not want to be like them?

But, as David Torrance pointed out here yesterday, Scotland is not actually a Nordic country. Our political culture is not Scandinavian. It is, to put it broadly, Anglo-Saxon. Nor is there any evidence suggesting Scots would actually vote for political parties that promised to raise taxes to Nordic levels. You may recall the success of the SNP’s “Penny for Scotland” campaign. Alex Salmond, for one, has learned that lesson.

Moreover, as cannot be stressed too often, an independent Scotland would hardly exist in isolation. Choices made in the rest of what used to be called the United Kingdom would impact life in Scotland too. You may argue that this would be regrettable (perhaps it would!) but I doubt you can credibly wish that truth away or pretend it would be of no account.

Culture matters and Scotland’s political culture is an English-speaking political culture with all that entails. That is to say, Scotland is much more like the Republic of Ireland or New Zealand than it is like Sweden or Finland. You might feel like going further still and observing that the problems of Greater Glasgow are more like those found in Cleveland than those experienced in Copenhagen.

Whole thing here. I would add this, too: Borgen cheats by allowing its protagonist to act in ways that run contrary to her own oft-professed principles only to always forgive her for failing to live up to her own standards. If she strays from the path of righteousness it is for the best – and understandable – reasons. Needless to say, such an accommodating principle is not extended to Prime Minister Nyborg’s opponents. They are never let off the hook; she always is. This kind of double-standard is basically the definition of political hackery. But, hey, at least Borgen is high-class hackery.

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Show comments
  • terregles2

    Oh dear BritNatz are running out of scare stories running out of abuse and never had a convincing argument in the first place. Time for the BritNatz to concentrate on how they will run the UK when Scotland is gone. One thing the BritNatz are running out of is time.

  • Shaun

    I don’t think most people watch for the politics though. The most political episodes (the ones about African peace) are normally the worst. What makes it interesting, and better than the West Wing, is the focus on the personal cost of politics. The families of the PM and her advisors and the journalists covering her.

    By contrast Bartlett was just there to dispense wisdom, his relationship with the First Lady only expressed in political tension and his daughter only brought in to look at the constitution of temporarily stepping down. By contrast Borgen did something similar this week, but it had been building for weeks and the daughter’s been a big character from the start. Similarly who knows about the lives of the West Wing staff. The best you get is that they’re apparently similar to damaged but heroic cops with a history of broken marriages and alcoholism.

    I suppose the difference for me is that the interest in the characters and what makes them so justifiably smug in the West Wing is what they’re doing politically. In Borgen it’s that they’re doing their job as politicians, spin doctors or journalists despite their private lives.

    Maybe because political obsessives watch it that’s what’s focused on, but it’s really a very good soap set in Borgen. It’s closer to a political Sopranos or Six Feet Under than the West Wing or State of Play.

  • Aitch-Aitch

    This article is just making something really quite simple into something quite complex.
    This is a TV drama…..doh

    Better to aspire to be like Denmark than continue as is in the UK

    Great things start with a simple ‘Yes!’

    • Wessex Man

      Quite happy for you to go on your merry way, bye.

      • Vrai écossais

        Living in the past Wessex man? No place called Wessex for a millennium unless you are a fantasist or some dreary lower middle class with pretension after reading Hardy?

        • Wessex Man

          It’s just a moniker much like your’s, I to am looking to the future for an independent England, think you’ll find that our Empire was being formed long before we saved you Scots from bankurptcy in our long and glorious past. As I replied to Aitch Atich, I am happy to see you reaching out for your independent future, bye.

          • Vrai écossais

            I say old boy, 300 years ago was a long time. Perhaps it was your youth or something. The world has changed and we simply do not need a bankrupt England anymore. Westminster seems to base its economic growth on printing billions of billions of money. Sheer lunacy. Sterling at any moment can implode and that will force Scotland to break away.

  • MichtyMe

    The flaw in this piece is the notion that there is a single Scandinavian political culture. If there ever was there is not now. There are different and distinct systems. Norway’s government expenditure as a percentage of GDP is significantly lower than the UK’s. Finland’s educational system is very different from Sweden’s and so on. The difference between the Nordic countries can be as great as between them and the UK.

  • CraigStrachan

    Did you see The Economist cover this week? Apparently, “getting to Denmark” is the modish term for successful modernization among development theorists.

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