If you exit Copenhagen’s main railway station, and watch the tourists, you’ll see that most turn to the right. If you follow the crowd, you’ll immediately find yourself at the main entrance to Tivoli Gardens. Keep going and you’ll arrive at the large open square in front of the impressive city chambers.
Most tourists then continue up the ‘walking street’ called Stroeget with its shops and cafes, then past the famous Stork Fountain, finally to emerge at Kongens Nytorv, with the Royal Theatre and the canal district known as Nyhavn nearby.
However, if, after exiting Copenhagen’s main station you turn left, you’ll head towards ‘Vesterbro’ (West Bridge). I took this route recently as I used to live to the left, so to speak. It was a sentimental journey of sorts as I was on my way to visit an old friend, I’ll call her Ms E (although she’s about as far from an alphabetty personality as you’ll find).
I walked almost the length of Vesterbrogade. Just a few decades ago Vesterbro was considered a run down, traffic ridden area of the city. A ‘working class’ part of town if you like. Although in reality, Danes have nothing like the social class divide you see in Scotland. But back in the 1980s Vesterbro was a place where you could meet people down on their luck. Its side streets were where the seamier side of the city could be found — drugs, prostitution, and other vices of the night.
Ms E lives in a small housing community from the 1880s called ‘Humleby’. Visiting this part of town is a walk through history. And there’s evidence of a bygone era at the bottom of Miss E’s street in the form of the ‘October Bookshop’. This is an old time left-wing emporium. Various announcements are sellotaped to the window — ‘Karl Marx, Socialism is the Future’ has pride of place. Historic posters hang randomly inside, some urging workers rights, others resistance to Nazism, and another proclaiming, ’No To More EU’. Interestingly, this is a phrase that I saw just the other day on a poster urging a ‘Nej’ in the upcoming Danish referendum on closer integration with the European Union. More about that shortly.
A comparison could once have be made between Vesterbro and the Friedrichshain district of Berlin. And when Miss E moved here in the mid-1980s, it had a Berlin-ish feel to it. At that time, there were large squatter actions by students, some of them anarchists, who demanded housing and more facilities for young people. In otherwise mild-mannered Denmark, civil disobedience is something authorities tend to act on. These days, Vesterbro is decidedly chic, sophisticated, and the place to be. Restaurants, cafes, and culture centres have blossomed.
Truth be told, Copenhagen was a very neat and tidy city in the 1980s, certainly compared to my home city of Glasgow. Leaving this Nordic capital, and arriving in our dear green place a few hours later, was something of a culture shock, even back then. Glasgow’s dereliction, slums, litter, rotting architectural heritage and the sheer poverty of the ‘have nots’, was staggering.
Modern Copenhagen has actually been transformed in recent decades. Good became better. Better became world class. Shiny new city districts have been created, public transport revamped, including a completely new Metro system, and of course cyclists have fabulous urban routes. The fabric of the old city is restored and cared for. I wish I could say the same of Glasgow or Edinburgh, or any other Scottish city.
Of course, Danes don’t send all of their revenues to London, only to suffer the Scottish humiliation of being handed back a ‘block grant’. Where else in the world would this be considered acceptable? A Barnett Formula is unnecessary when you keep everything you earn. Yes, it’s independence that’s normal.
But closer European integration is the issue that’s occupying Danish minds at the moment. In the coming days, Danes will have a choice to make on which direction to take going forward regarding the EU. Traditionally, Denmark has had a healthy level of EU scepticism. In June 1992, the country actually voted No to the Maastricht Treaty. That result came as a shock to Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, and John Major.
After negotiations and a summit in Edinburgh, Danes received four opt-outs. Two of the key concessions made by the EU were on the single currency and common defence policies. And so in May 1993, the powers that be decided that Danes needed to vote again. This time it was a Yes to the revised Maastricht Treaty. However, the result was followed by riots in Copenhagen. In spite of a 57-43% majority in favour of the customised ‘Danish Maastricht’, the unrest was described as the worst in Denmark’s peacetime history. The police, who more often than not keep their pistols in their holsters, shot 11 anti-Maastricht demonstrators during rioting, apparently in self-defence.
The recent escalation of the conflict in Ukraine has given a unique opportunity to people with political agendas to pursue their goals. There has been a conscious choice to turn right. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the Nordic region. Finland and Sweden’s applications to join NATO, formalise the quiet, long-term cooperation between the alliance and these two erstwhile neutral states.
Nevertheless, formalising membership is hugely significant. Abandoning neutrality and embracing NATO is not consequence-free — politically or economically. David Pratt wrote recently in The National that Finland wants to protect itself from “a regime that has starkly revealed itself to be no respecter of frontiers or national sovereignty”. The reality though, is that NATO is led by the United States, a nation that is itself no respecter of frontiers or national sovereignty — as Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, and Syria will confirm. For a defensive alliance, NATO comes across as unusually aggressive.
The Danish government, led by Social Democrat Mette Frederiksen, has moved quickly on the back of the Ukraine crisis to call a referendum on the Danish EU opt out on common defence policies. It’s perhaps worth noting that, in a well-functioning democracy, referendums are normal and can be arranged at short notice. As a Scot, I do wonder why — six years on from the change in material circumstances known as Brexit — we have not already voted on our future in the Union. Could it be that our current First Minister is happy administering a ‘colonial assembly’ in Edinburgh as some kind of latter-day high commissioner for Scotland? Looking in from abroad, she appears more consumed by the myth of her own political celebrity status, rather than seeking our nation’s freedom.
Although Finland and Sweden have decided to act on NATO without consulting the people, Denmark will put their EU question to the test. It has been suggested that the government is cynically using the heightened hysteria around Ukraine to stop being the odd one out in the Brussels club. It has also been asked why this is at all necessary, given that Denmark is already a member of NATO. But be that as it may, on 1 June, Danish citizens will get the chance to stick with what they’ve got or to extend more power to the belligerent bureaucrats Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell.
By the way, my wife who has lived in Denmark since she was 14 years old does not get a say in this matter. Long term residence does not entitle you to vote on Danish constitutional issues, not even if you’re an Icelander with a Norwegian passport. Nordic cooperation goes only so far. I, on the other hand, having recently received citizenship, do get to cast a vote.
That said, citizenship has not turned me into a Dane, neither has long-term residence in this fair land. I’m probably as integrated as you can be on every level, but I came here as an immigrant, and that’s what I am. I’ve been made to feel more than welcome in my adopted homeland, but to be honest, I think Danes should decide this issue for themselves. So I’ll probably not be voting on 1 June.
I feel the same about Scotland. It turned out that we Scots actually voted Yes to our independence in 2014, I believe the figure was 53% of native Scots for independence. Using a Nordic franchise, we would have been independent for 8 years already. Our massive energy resources would be benefitting 5.5 million rather than the other 60+ million on the British Isles. All of our revenues would remain in Scotland, not handed to London. And of course, we could be in EFTA with access to Europe for our exports, and not least, we’d be a secure and economically healthy home for our EU and other foreign friends living here.
No nation in the world hands over its constitutional future to foreign residents, be they short or long term. So why should Scotland? Especially as we are, like Denmark, next door to a massively more populous state. The influx of citizens from our larger neighbour is already altering the franchise in parts of our nation. If we do not revisit the franchise question, we Scots may find our national aspirations frustrated by the votes of temporary residents, economic migrants, and second home owners, many of whom have little or no desire to see Scotland leave the colonial control of the parliament at Westminster. Controversial perhaps, but nowhere else would this be acceptable.
There is another possibility though, and that is that we Scots are unique in the modern world, in that we place so little value on our national sovereignty that we’re quite happy to give it away. Back in the day, at least the English parliament had to use bribes to subvert our sovereignty and push through the Act of Union. These days we allow them to do it for free. London’s control of all aspects of Scottish life now resembles a kind of long-term ‘Sovietization’, by other means. The relationship that began, ostensibly as a Union of equals, is now that of an overlord state and its vassal. Wha sae base as be a slave?
Back in Humleby, Ms E is the proud owner of a remarkably friendly cat. He has a postage stamp garden outside the window where he’s joined by other local felines. Even Danish cats seem to understand togetherness ‘hygge’. These houses from the 1880s are a little oasis in the busy city. There’s an interesting story behind them that tells you a little about Danish social history. The houses of Humleby were financed by contributions to the Workers Building Society. The society was established in 1865 by workers at the Burmeister & Wain shipyard. A similar area of workers houses lies just off the city centre by ‘the lakes’. Known as ‘Kartofelraekkerne’, these were also financed by worker’s contributions to the Society. Not only beautifully maintained, these houses are also an important part of the capital’s urban heritage.
So, taking a left turn outside Copenhagen’s main station is to be recommended, especially as the walk down Vesterbrogade is off the usual tourist trail. Don’t miss the historic Absalonsgade with its coblestones. It’s on your left a few hundred metres down. And if you do get as far as Humleby, continue a little further and you’ll reach the historic Carlsberg production facility. Humleby actually takes its name from Carlsberg. Not only did it originally house workers from the Carlsberg plant, its name ‘Humleby’ is derived from ‘humle’, ‘hops’ in Danish, a key ingredient of what they like to describe as ‘probably the best beer in the world’. The Carlsberg facility has changed over the years. I understand that much of the production is now off site, but it’s worth a visit for the architecture alone. And if you’re a cerevisaphile, ‘wet tours’ are also available.