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Denmark and the politics of contentment

A santa rests at The Little Mermaid sculpture in Copenhagen Harbour on the second day of the World Santa Claus Congress 2009

By James Naughtie
Today programme

It is inescapable that the Danes have a reputation for being gloomy. We should blame Hamlet, I suppose, but whatever the reason there is a feeling that their Scandinavian calm has a melancholy side.

This, I am happy to report, is rubbish. Not only is Copenhagen a jolly and relaxed place, but there is statistical evidence to explode the myth.

Time and again, when social scientists ask Danes whether they are happy, back comes the answer - yes we are. More than any other country in Europe, Denmark says it is contented.

The reason why this may matter is that there is a strand of social thinking that challenges the assumption that societies improve, and satisfaction increases, when economic growth races along and people spend and consume more.

Rebalancing policy

Some call it Happiness Economics. Indeed, the economist Richard Layard wrote a book a little while ago called simply Happiness, in which he put the case for the politics of contentment.

He is convinced that a decade or so ahead social priorities will focus much less on prosperity and consumption and more on general well-being.

This connected with a debate that stretches from right to left. The former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith set up his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, to consider the implications of what he calls "the broken society".

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of the Danish Social Democratic Party
Social democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt believes in the economic value of happiness

One of the answers, he thinks, is a rebalancing of social policy to concentrate on social cohesion.

On a different level, this year's Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4 by the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel laid out the case for making the common good rather than individual self-improvement the primary object of policy.

That is why Denmark is interesting. For many decades now, governments there have tried to champion social cohesion as all-important.

That is not to say they do not have problems - in Copenhagen this month there has a been a struggle between two drugs gangs - but there is a remarkable steadiness about their society.

Sexual equality

High taxes are broadly accepted if public services are kept working well - child care from an early age for everyone, a school system that makes very few people even think of going private, a comprehensive health service and so on.

They are also intensely proud of the way their workplaces run - a striking level of sexual equality (because the vast majority of women go back to work after having children, thanks to the state care provision) and an atmosphere of egalitarianism in decision-making.

This does not mean there is not ambition, and the fact that the gap between rich and poor is narrower than in most countries does not mean that there is not a super-rich bracket (there is), but the settled quality of Danish society is unmistakable.

Instead about worrying about what they don't have, they seem more concerned about how to preserve what they've got.

So what is the price of social cohesion? It may be an attraction to homogeneity in society that can, quite easily, tilt over into something rather unpleasant.

The far-right did well in the European elections in June and are part of the governing coalition.

James Naughtie in Copenhagen
Copenhagen is an ideal city to explore on two wheels

Observers in Copenhagen will tell you that the immigration question is extraordinarily sensitive - there is a feeling that outsiders may disturb a precious quality that is quintessentially Danish.

Such characteristics as the strong antipathy to people who get above themselves - a kind of social barometer of humility that is rather appealing - are accompanied by a sense of identity that depends to some extent on keeping the community looking the same as it always has.

It would be quite wrong to paint Denmark as a perfect society, immune from the curse of a "broken society" and free of the ills that consume the interests of our political classes.

Yet it is quite right to look at how a kind of social balance can be preserved - how social norms can be directed at the maintenance of calm rather than in aggressive self-improvement.

The more the recession exacerbates the feeling that "something has gone wrong", and the more the squeeze on government spending affects the quality of public services, the more likely it is that the "politics of contentment" will become an important part of political debate.

And if you want to discover how it feels to have that feeling built into your politics and social policy-making there is no better place to go than Copenhagen. For whatever reason, it works.

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Country profile: Denmark
Friday, 23 December 2011, 11:55 GMT |  Country profiles


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