Letter from Denmark: National Consciousness

Image on display at Christiansborg showing ‘Slotsholmen in 1660

There are two ways to see the Danish parliament. The first is a standard 45-minute guided walk about. The second is the longer ‘Kunstomvisning’, or art tour. I suggested to my wife that she give up her sacred Saturday morning downtime to join me. Unexpectedly, she agreed.

There’s track work between the Eastbridge (Østerbro) Station and Copenhagen Central. In the old days (three years ago!) this meant a stop-start bus journey, or a brisk hike into the town centre. Today, the new subway offers a fast and easy alternative to get us into Slotsholmen and the seat of government.

Gammel Strand Metro Station is located quite near Christiansborg

We emerge from the subterranean depths of the brand new ‘Gammel Strand’ Metro station. In front of us is a large bronze statue of a man on a horse. It’s the 12th-century warrior-bishop, Absalon, said to be the founder of Copenhagen. Saint Mungo was never like this. It’s more ‘Absalon Ya Bass’ than ‘Dear Green Place’. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen a statue of the founder of Glasgow, anywhere. Is there one?

The statue Absalon on his horse comes into view as you exit Gammel Strand Metro station

Across the road, Christiansborg, the ‘castle of the realm’, looms under low cloud. It stands on the site of Absalon’s original castle from the year 1197.

After the usual security checks, we head up a grand staircase. “The marble you see is from Greenland,” our guide declares, “and there’s basalt from the Faroe Islands, with granite from Bornholm.”

The idea, apparently, was to embed stone from all parts of the historic Danish commonwealth (Rigsfællesskabet) in the parliament.

The first floor of the Danish parliament building

Upstairs on the first floor, all four versions of the nation’s Constitution are on show, the first of them from 1849. There’s also a version of ‘Jyske Lov’, the oldest codified laws dating back to 12th century Jutland.

The art is everywhere. On the walls of the broad corridors, and in the various meeting rooms, most of them very large. As I’d hoped, the art on show links to historical time periods, and not least to political personalities.

Two paintings in particular catch my eye – they are portraits of two former prime ministers. For me, they sum up the political change in Denmark over the past decades.

One of them is of Anker Jørgensen, Social Democratic PM in the 1970s and 1980s. The other is of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, of the right-leaning Venstre party and PM between 2001-09 (after which he became NATO Secretary General).

Anker Jørgensen, Danish PM during the 1970s and early 1980s

A contemporary of Olof Palme, Jørgensen was an old style Social Democrat, in other words, a genuine socialist. He lived most of his life in a modest home in a ‘working class’ area on Copenhagen’s south side. In office, he introduced progressive policies and a range of new benefits. He was also an honorary president of the Socialist International.

Rasmussen’s portrait is, however, an outlier among the PM paintings. To his credit, he chose a female artist. Initially, she declined. She was at the other end of the political spectrum to the former right-wing PM. He eventually persuaded her to take the commission.

The result is probably the most controversial PM portrait of them all. In it, Rasmussen is staring at us. There’s a NATO star in the sky and a Hercules aircraft of the Danish Air Force.

Former Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen

Denmark became involved in two US-led wars during his tenure. The painting has a pop art look. Rasmussen himself is described as looking like a ‘leather-skinned Schwarzenegger’.

If Anker Jørgensen was a contemporary of Palme, Rasmussen is very much a Danish clone of Sweden’s Carl Bildt – one of the non-entities who came to power in Stockholm after the Palme assassination. Today, Bildt comes across as a nordic neocon.

One of the most interesting rooms is that used by the foreign relations committee. Our guide points out the double doors and the curfew on personal electronic devices during meetings. The important issues of state discussed here are strictly confidential.

The Foreign Affairs Committee room

We finish off in the chamber where MPs gather for business. There’s no one here today, though, other than ghosts of times past. After a fast-paced 90 minute tour of parliament you’re in no doubt about Danish national identity. 

This is an ancient kingdom. Danes elevated the status of their mither tongue above that of foreign languages centuries ago. The suggestion that it is merely ‘corrupt German’, or a dialect, is rejected. Unlike the Scots language, Danish flourishes today.

The parliamentary chamber

This wee European state of 5.7 million people has existed in various forms for more than 1,000 years. It is a parallel nation to Scotland, the difference being that a large number of we Scots accept, unquestioningly, the negation of our national sovereignty, the ridicule and degradation of our language, and the hegemony of our exploitative southern neighbour. All this based on a dodgy international treaty, which is used to justify the ongoing military occupation of, and theft of resources from, our national territory.

Tour over, we’re back outside again. The drizzle is more intense. I suggest we head for a cafe over on Gammel Strand by the Metro station. Neither of us managed breakfast before our early start.

Main entrance to Christiansborg

Inside ‘Cafe Diamanten’ (cafediamanten.dk) there’s a fabulous scent of something frying, which turns out to be a club sandwich. It’s whisked past us and outside to one of the hardy patrons sitting under the canvas cafe marquee. The cappuccino is hot and there’s a fresh croissant for my fellow culture vulture.

Cafe Diamanten

Gammel Strand is actually one of Copenhagen’s older streets. It’s located by the canal, just across from the small island or ‘holm’ on which the government in buildings are situated. There was once a bustling fish market here. In previous times, small fishing boats from the Sound would sail right into the centre of town with their catch. Today, the only boats coming and going here are the Canal Tours for tourists.

Gammel Strand 1953

Danes are extremely well informed about their national story. And this past week one of the nation’s great chroniclers was laid to rest. Lise Nørgaard was a pioneering female journalist and later the author of Matador – a TV series produced in the 1970s. The series, covers the period between 1932 to 1948, and has become a classic.

Born a few months before the October Revolution in 1917, Nørgaard grew up into adulthood in the era she later wrote about. She was a strong woman, a powerful, straight-talking writer — and not least, a feminist. 

I sometimes wonder what a Scottish ‘Matador’ would have been like, and its effect on the national psyche. After all, there’s probably not an adult Dane who has not seen, or is at least aware of, Matador.

At an age of 105 she was still curious and discussed events in Ukraine as easily as the latest machinations at Christiansborg. I was unaware that’s she’d spent her final years in an old folks home by the sea, just a few kilometres from us. A youthful 105-year-old, she was a national treasure to the last. Her description of Denmark and ‘Danishness’, during the tumultuous Thirties and Forties, has increased the national consciousness of an entire generation.

As Dr Alf Baird wrote in his poem published the other day: ‘Naitional consciousness isnae nationalism.’

This is probably why I’ve remained a long-term exile. Danes know who they are. They feel comfortable in their own skin. Yes, they suffer from small nation syndrome, but there is not a ‘Danish Cringe’. There’s something hugely appealing about a small country that doesn’t suffer from a permanent identity crisis, and that has enough patriotic self-belief to assert itself – even against its far larger southern neighbour.

Denmark accepted me as one of its own. Yet, it’s never allowed we incomers to vote in referendums or take part in key constitutional decisions. And why should it?

I’ve always thought it rather arrogant and entitled to move to another country and expect full citizenship rights after a brief stay. If you move to Denmark tomorrow, you’ll get to vote in council elections. And to be fair, those do affect your daily life, locally.

Looking towards the Stock Exchange and Slotsholmen (right). The similarities with the image from 1660 are clear to see 400 years later

But to take part in parliamentary elections – or referendums – you’ll need citizenship. That demands seven years residency and then a lengthy process, including proof of language skills and a citizenship test. This is entirely normal. Scotland is the outlier.

A post-2014 #Yes would probably have seen a homecoming of many exiles. But instead of the #Yes decision of 52% of native Scots being validated, the restoration of our national independence was sacrificed for temporary residents, transient students, second home owners, and folk who’ve come to Scotland for many valid reasons, but with no knowledge of our historic claim to sovereignty or nationhood.

A majority of voters born in Scotland said Yes to independence.
But nearly three-quarters of people from elsewhere in the UK voted No.

A great number of the 52% Yes voters weren’t political. They were Scots who had never voted before, and probably haven’t since. Their hope of a better Scotland crushed.

In one sense, the entire premise of the 2014 referendum franchise was based on an innate disbelief, in the validity of our national identity as ‘a people’, as defined by the United Nations.

Did England give EU citizens a vote on Brexit? No, it didn’t. But suggest excluding recent English incomers from an indyref vote and you’re branded a blood and soil nationalist.

No other country on Earth allows incomers to determine its constitutional status. Yet, Scotland is held to a higher standard and expected to accommodate everyone and anyone in its franchise. Then there were the 800,000 postal votes that both John McTernan and Ruth Davidson knew were ‘strongly’ pro-Union. With no exit polls and all ballots destroyed, we’re left with a lingering sense of unease.

No, national consciousness is not blood and soil nationalism. It is who we are. National identity is how every other country defines itself.

Of course, as a nation, we may have reached the point where we have so little respect for, and belief in, our own culture and national heritage, that we are happy to be subsumed as a region of greater England. We don’t place much value on ourselves, if we give anyone who arrives here, an instant right to vote on the constitutional future of our 1,000-year-old nation.

And if we claim to be civic nationalists, why do we insist that people who come to Scotland must be Scots? They’re not. Even severe cultural appropriation, won’t turn any of we exile Scots into Americans, Danes, French, Germans, or whatever. We are who we are.

Some of we Scots entertain a romantic notion that anyone who arrives in Scotland magically becomes Scottish. That’s no more true than a man can become a woman.

Civic nationalism shouldn’t be about forcing others to be Scottish. Surely it’s about accepting other cultures into our society – without sacrificing our national identity, or democratic safeguards, to accommodate those who choose to move here?

The same is true of we exiles in the Scottish diaspora. We are in, but not of, our adopted homelands.

It takes a very long time for first generation immigrants to adapt and integrate. In reality, it’s the second generation, those born in, or who arrive as children in their parents’ adopted homeland, who first identify with that nation. Ma ain bairns now identify as Danes. That makes me rather proud, really. Still, it warms my heart that my daughter wants to bring her boyfriend over on Burns Night.

If the Yes vote of native Scots had been the deciding factor in 2014 – as it should have been – I expect there would have been at least three Scottish passport holders under my roof today. Unfortunately, the ridiculous franchise agreed upon, allowed defeat to be snatched from the jaws of victory.

Parallel nations, and close North Sea neighbours, Scotland and Denmark may be. But sometimes, when it comes to national consciousness, the water between us seems as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.

Published by Indyscotnews

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