Denmark’s Fall from Glory

Venstre 2

”520 Days that Changed Denmark; Political Journal over Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s Narrow Venstre Government 2015-16” [”520 dage der forandrede Danmark”] by Kaare R. Skou,

Gads Forlag, 2017 316 pp.

In just 520 days, Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s small single-party government managed to fundamentally change Denmark in important ways. First and foremost, the Venstre government left Denmark a more culturally and socially divided country, and a country that had lost much of its international prestige as a former humanitarian and environmental beacon. That is the central argument of veteran political journalist, Kaare R. Skou.

The fragile parliamentary foundation

After the national election in June 2015, Denmark was left with a government comprised only of Venstre, Denmark’s Liberal Party, with parliamentary support from the nationalist Danish People’s Party, the more libertarian Liberal Alliance and the Conservatives. This was a highly unusual constellation. In Denmark governments are usually comprised by multiple parties, which enables a stronger parliamentary foundation for realization of its policies. In contrast, Venstre came into power as Denmark’s only third largest party (after the Social Democrats and the Danish People’s Party, the latter enjoying a landslide election). This meant that from day one Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen would have had a hard time finding support for his policies, considering the fact that his three supporting parties varied greatly on most issues.

Managing immigration

In 520 Days Kaare R. Skou lays out the many scandals and controversies that harried the short life of the government. Of special interest to Skou are the issues of migration, which was the political topic of 2015. With Minister of Integration, Inger Støjberg as its champion, and the Danish People’s Party and the increasingly right-leaning Social Democrats at its back, the Venstre government launched a tightening of the Danish immigration system. This ranged from cuts in social benefits to immigrants, to ads in Lebanese newspapers warning refugees that Denmark is not a great place to go, to laws enabling the Danish police to confiscate jewelry from asylum seekers. Skou notes how these policies shocked the international press: What was happening in Denmark? – a country renowned for its humanitarian leadership?

The art of mediocrity

To Venstre the central priority was to boost the Danish economy and regaining control over the refugee situation. The latter priority was especially supported by the Danish People’s Party who was at all times able to topple the government and force a new national election. The emphasis on the economy became especially evident in a number of policies that boosted conventional agriculture and fossil fuels at the expense of the Danish environment and climate ambitions.

Likewise, though Denmark has traditionally been considered an engaged and good citizen of the international society, Venstre took it on itself to challenge international conventions and loosen the Danish adherence to its climate obligations. This was done with the purpose of strengthening the governments control over immigration and boost conditions for businesses. In Skou’s analysis, Venstre’s aim was always mediocracy on these “softer” areas. Why strive to become the international number one, when there is plenty of room in top twenty?

Venstre venner

The fine art of political criticism

Delivering a political criticism is always a daunting task, since the author can easily be accused of political partisanship, and unfortunately Kaare R. Skou does not manage to overcome this challenge in 520 Days. His coverage of the government parties and its parliamentary support often lacks nuances and at times succumbs to overdramatic conclusions. Too often does Skou overstate his case which leaves the reader feeling less confident in the credibility of the author’s account. The result is a book that presents itself as an objective “political journal”, as the subtitle states, but reads more like a social liberal or central-left – i.e. opposition – account of the period.

Yet with this important reservation, 520 Days is a well-written, humorous, and insightful overview of a short but intriguing period of Danish history, and Skou convincingly argues that in less than one and a half year, the Venstre government managed to significantly alter the Danish political landscape. Central herein was a transformation of Danes’ view of the world around them and vice versa. At the same time, 520 Days is a frightening account of some of democracy’s challenges, namely in relation to the effective management of massive bureaucratic systems such as the tax system, how facts and statistics are presented and manipulated by politicians to support their agendas, and how much policy remains symbolic. In short, 520 Day will probably leave its reader well-informed albeit disillusioned about the Danish democracy.

Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen

Pictures c/o Venstre, Flickr

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