By Taylor, Robert | New Statesman (1996), October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Taylor, Robert, New Statesman (1996)

Its porn is fun, its cities clean, and in social justice it is leagues ahead of us. As for that No...

"Sex, suicide and socialism": those were the three deadly words used by President Dwight Eisenhower nearly half a century ago to characterise Godless Scandinavia. But, for many progressives around the world, the countries of democratic northern Europe still remain the closest to their idea of a secular paradise. Clean, egalitarian, tolerant, if more than a touch smug and self-righteous, the Nordic countries are a standing affront to those neoliberal ideologues who cannot accept or understand that it is quite possible to combine effectively economic efficiency with social justice in an open market economy. The Third Way was practical social democratic politics in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, rather than a vacuous soundbite, long before the long-haired Tony Blair had ever strummed his guitar.

None of this seems likely to trouble Britain's Europhobes, whose views of the wider Continent remain confused and ignorant. Indeed, Denmark was the toast of the Conservative Party conference last week, after its people voted No to their country joining the European single currency. To Europhobes such as the former chancellor Norman Lamont, the plucky little Danes have put two fingers up to the Brussels bureaucrats in the name of patriotism and national independence. With all the haughty condescension that is typical of the British when we look abroad, the opponents of UK membership of the euro have suddenly discovered hidden virtues in a country they know only through Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, Copenhagen's mermaid, imports of Danish butter and ham, the wonders of Legoland and Bang & Olufsen's high-tech sound equipment.

It may be far away, but Denmark is now serving a useful purpose in an internal struggle in British politics that looks set to last for a good number of years to come. The Danish thumbs-down to the euro has given credibility to the UK Europhobes, who can no longer be dismissed by the more vulgar, laddish champions of the Britain in Europe movement as revolving-eyed loonies posturing on the fringe. The Daily Mirror's tirade against Denmark for being a small, insignificant place reveals much of the typical de haut en bas arrogance of our tabloid press towards a fervently Anglophile country with a democratic tradition longer and stronger than our own.

Indeed, civilised Denmark seems a surprising country for our own Europhobes to enthuse about, even if it is part of a Nordic region that continues to display a widespread scepticism about the merits of closer European integration. Sweden continues to dither over the virtues of euro membership, while Norway stands resplendent in its comfortable, self-imposed isolation, completely outside the European Union, although part of a wider trade area, living the rich life on the back of North Sea oil and gas Only Finland is playing the good European as a euro member, perhaps driven by its desire to grow closer to the Continent's heartland, for fear of a turn for the worse in neighbouring Russia.

In fact, the cultures of Denmark and the other Nordic countries remain incorrigible provocations to the self-righteous moral values of the British right. The Danes -- well known in the region for their happy-go-lucky attitude -- have a well-deserved reputation for tolerance of deviance and dissent. On the edge of Copenhagen' s city centre lies Christiania, a hippy-ridden, drug-infested ghetto where the police rarely go and the enemies of convention enjoy themselves, untroubled by state intrusion save for receiving regular and generous welfare handouts. It is the sort of place designed to give our Home Secretary, Jack Straw, a heart attack.

The Danish sex trade may have become tawdry, attractive only to visiting English football supporters and businessmen, but it should not be forgotten that Copenhagen was once the city where the censorious Lord Longford and Mary Whitehouse were suitably shocked at the assorted antics of party animals in the capital's clubs.

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