Scottish smugness crafts a Borgen-level delusion

Scottish smugness crafts a Borgen-level delusion

by Alex Massie
article from Tuesday 5, February, 2013

BORGEN, Borgen. Borgen. In recent days it has seemed impossible to open Scotland's "quality" newspapers without being confronted by fresh thumb-sucking on one of the great questions of our time: what can Scotland learn from a Danish political television drama?

Borgen, which if it were more widely watched would soon become a fringe enthusiasm, is a smart, well-made piece of television. It is certainly more ambitious than anything one can recall being produced by either BBC Scotland or STV in recent years. So it is no surprise that Borgen is so popular among elements of the Scottish blethering classes. Smugness is this country's greatest political vice.

Just as Canadian politics operates in a context dominated by the United States - and hence places a great premium upon distinguishing Canadian policy from the American way of doing things - so Scottish politics is defined by the measure of water that can be put between whatever we do in Scotland and whatever they are doing in England.

Plainly that urge is part of the SNP's DNA but it was also an impulse to which the Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood surrendered. After all, what would the point be of this smart new Scottish parliament if you just used it to run public services in the same way they're run in England? The whole point of devolution was to do things differently. Not necessarily better, just differently.

Sometimes, of course, the Scottish way of organising matter may indeed prove preferable or at least more suited to Scottish conditions. If we can recognise this we can also appreciate the opposite truth: the fact that a given policy is produced in Scotland is no guarantee of quality either.

The agitation for more powers at Holyrood is, in one sense, a curious one given how reluctant Holyrood government's (of whatever party) have been to use the full range of powers the Scottish parliament presently enjoys. Then again: Holyrood has often been used as a means of thwarting reform, not of pursuing it.

We congratulate ourselves on this. Better to plump for the safety of the status quo than hazard anything so risky as real reform of government-supplied services. The contrast with England under Tony Blair and now David Cameron is marked. They do things differently down there.

In Scotland we prefer to think we do things differently and better. We are, after all, as the late John Smith once suggested a "more moral" people than the English. Frankly, perhaps they don't really deserve us. So, given this, perhaps 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.

Of course, there are plenty of things to admire in Nordicland. Their commitment to local democracy dwarfs anything either available or proposed in Scotland. That's the basis of their political culture. Much else stems from that.

But it is also true that our friends across the North Sea have shown themselves less doctrinaire than is sometimes imagined. Michael Gove's education reforms in England are based in large part upon Sweden's own successful schools revolution. Those reforms, however, have been too adventurous for Scotland. There's no place for Govism north of the Tweed! Not because Gove's proposals are wrong in detail, you understand, but because they are mistaken in principle.

Perhaps they are, though I'm not actually persuaded that's the case. Nevertheless, education is one example of how those who wish us to be more like Sweden actually don't mean what they preach. Similarly, "private" is not a swear-word in Danish politics to anything like the extent it is in Scotland and Copenhagen, despite its high taxes, always scores well on indices of economic freedom compiled by conservative American think tanks.

So, sure, there are different Nordic lessons that can please different parts of the Scottish political community. Nevertheless, the question remains this: is Scotland more like Norway or New Zealand, Sweden or Ireland, Denmark or Canada? I think the answer to that question is obvious but it's not the one we hear much about.

The Nordic countries are grand places, worth our admiration. But it seems much more probable that an independent Scotland will be more like other parts of the English-speaking world than it will start to emulate Norway or Denmark. History and culture matter more than is sometimes appreciated and our history is entwined with the Anglosphere in ways and to a depth that does not apply to our relationship with our Nordic friends. If we wish to divine some notion of what an independent Scotland might look like we might do better to look to Ireland, New Zealand and Canada.

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