What does Borgen tell us about ourselves?

February 9, 2012 12:43 pm

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Birgitte Nyborg joins the pantheon of idealistic, smart, likeable politicians we all secretly wish we had instead of our real ones. She is the Danish Jefferson Smith, President Bartlett or Mrs Pritchard. She is intelligent, beautiful, vulnerable, and idealistic.

The leader of the Moderate Party, a magnificent swan navigating her way through piranha-infested waters, has just completed her first months as Danish prime minister in Borgen. BBC4 has broadcast the first series of the hit Danish political drama, and half a million of us have been hooked. A second series has already been shown in Denmark, and will be with us soon.

Borgen – Danish for castle or fortress – is comparable to the Americans’ use of ‘The Hill’. But in Denmark, it includes the parliament, prime ministers’ office, and the supreme court. I have learned more about Danish politics in the past few weeks than the previous 25 years. During the week I met with a Danish diplomat. She reliably informed me that most of Borgen is accurate. The prime minister can cycle around town, take unmolested walks in the park, and as Nyborg does in one episode, take the day to ‘work from home’. The episode where she forms her coalition government is a master class that Ed Miliband may have to emulate sometime soon. We’ve learned about the political system, the culture of multi-party government, and most importantly that Danish for ‘spin doctor’ is ‘spin doctor’.

The influence of American political culture is everywhere. Kasper Juul, the abused, tortured, amoral spin doctor listens to JFK’s inaugural address on his IPod whilst jogging. Katrine Fønsmark, the television political reporter has an All the President’s Men poster on her bedroom wall. Yet it is Birgitte Nyborg who stands up to the Americans over their use of Greenland airbases for extraordinary rendition, and loses her chance for a Presidential visit. That’s her Love Actually moment, when she gets to face down the bullies.

There’s a running narrative through Borgen, as through its bigger, smarter antecedent West Wing, or our own minor league contenders such as A British Coup (being remade I hear), or even Yes Minister. It is that politics corrupts, and the higher you get, the more corrupting it becomes. The idealism of Nyborg, a busy mum with a husband who looks like a model from the Boden catalogue, is contrasted with the breath-taking cynicism of her spin doctor Kaspar, or Bent Sejrø, her grizzled political retainer, or the utter slime ball Leader of the Labour Party Michael Laugesen. Laugesen, Nicolo Machiavelli’s morals with Alan Milburn’s good looks, manages to be a venal politician, author of a despicable, slanderous ‘kiss and tell’ book about other politicians, and a tabloid editor, all in the first series. I think he deserves a spin-off.

The message of Borgen is that politics is broken, but the decent citizens needed to fix it can’t breach the Fortress walls. As they try, they are thwarted by the vested power interests of big business, established political parties and the media, and in the end pay the price. At the end of A Very British Coup, some 25 years ago, the air is filled with the sound of helicopters. At the end of Borgen, there are only broken hearts.

The early episodes reminded me of the flush of excitement when New Labour was first elected. New Labour was about doing politics differently, sweeping away the old shibboleths and dusting away the cobwebs. Our first months in office were exhilarating, with endless big exciting initiatives and announcements. The first wave of New Labour reforms were more exciting than anything portrayed in the West Wing or Borgen. For once, real life trumped drama. But in the end, as we know, the excitement fades and harsh realpolitik kicks in.

Borgen doesn’t just tell us about the lives of the Danish political class, with their beautifully decorated homes and Le Corbusier loungers, their fierce egalitarianism and proud nationalism. It also tells us about ourselves. It tells us that we long for politicians who are human, decent, motivated by public service, and desirous to do the right thing for those who deserve it. It reminds us that politics should be about values, not ambition, and that the craft of politics, on rare occasions, need not become corrosive to those who practice it.

———————————————————————————————————————-

Paul Richards is currently seeking the nomination to be Labour’s candidate for police commissioner in Sussex.

  • Anonymous


    The early episodes reminded me of the flush of excitement when New Labour was first elected. New Labour was about doing politics differently, sweeping away the old shibboleths and dusting away the cobwebs. Our first months in office were exhilarating, with endless big exciting initiatives and announcements. ”

    “A  new day has dawned, has it not?…my government will be purer than pure”,and then what happened within months there was Bernie Ecclestone and Ron Davies having his moment of madness, quickly followed by Peter Mandelson’s dodgy mortgage application.

    So by December 1998 – just 18 months from the new day dawning, we all know Blairism was as corrupt and hypocritical as what had gone before.

    • Anonymous


      Alan Milburn’s good looks…”

      “Paul Richards is currently seeking the nomination to be Labour’s candidate for police commissioner in Sussex”

      Perhaps you can recruit him, IF you win, Paul? P.C. Milburn the pretty policeman :-)

      • Anonymous

        Apparently the dazzlingly original demigoddess-like politico-intellectual Hazel Blears once said of Alan Milburn: “Very pretty but nothing between the ears.” I can’t comment on the former but agree wholeheartedly with the latter, possibly the only time I found it in me to agree with the Bride of Chuckie about anything. Just goes to show you, eh? Pluralism at its best!  

        * I bet this comment gets deleted! *

        • Anonymous

          I bet it does as well  few of mine have  gone missing, but I suspect that’s the way of the world these days.

          Seems new labour is alive and well and looking for well paid jobs.

          • Anonymous

            Funnily enough, reading yesterday that Liam Byrne sees himself as a mayor  and today that Mr. Richards thinks he has the gravitas to be a police commissioner (not backwards in coming forwards is he?), I was reminded of the days when London had it’s own custom made bus fleet.

            When the vehicles were getting worn out, trundling round London, slowed down and a bit shopworn,  they would be shipped off to the provinces where they would spend their declining years, slowed down, their bodywork not so battered in little seaside towns and the like.

            It seems these jobs for the boys are the human equivalent. The thing was the buses had done a good job of work in London prior to their removal

          • Anonymous

            Nothing changes, some of them buses are now in Wales as school buses I kid you not.

  • Anonymous

    I thought I was reading Bozier for a minute.

  • Anonymous

    All Borgen shows us, as with the two series of The Killing (Forbrydelsen), is that the Danes have great actors, scriptwriters and can make great television. 

    • Anonymous


      For a moment I thought this article might be slowly rallying to proclaim something truly daft like “Yvette Cooper for Labour leader”.

      I thought it was going to be ruggedly handsome Alan Milburn, but perhaps if the police commissioner gig doesn’t come off, there could be a remake of “Brief Encounter” with Alan Milburn as Trevor Howard and PR as Celia Johnson.

      • Anonymous

        This is not interesting it has no value  or anything to do with Politic except that most of the politicians to day see them selves as celerities, or as we said in my day “HIP” god I’m feeling my age now. Route 66 and all that.. 

        • Anonymous

          I disagree Robert- I think politics is about people’s lives- and this can include drama/other artistic mediums to reflect on issues and scenarios.

          Also in the 80′s there was a lot of political satire and alternative comedy, such as “the New Statesman?”
          (with Alan B’stard….)

          Also thinking of visual art and music as a vehicle for
          airing issues of the time- think of the 60′s and 70′s campaigning.
          The public seemed a lot more active back then politically.
          Now more like couch potatoes discussing trivia and celebrity culture!!
          (Could that be a ploy to keep people quiet perhaps?!)

          Maybe a subject for another day…

          Jo

  • Anonymous

    I’m really sorry to have missed this, although caught clips on BBC4.
    Perhaps it does hilight the difference in gender politics/cultural attitudes
    between Scandinavian/European countries and institutions- eg Parliament
    and media?

    Certainly refreshing compared to the traditional male bastions
    over the last few decades- and even debating things like whether to install
    “top totty” beer in the MP’s bar in 2012?

    2 brilliant dramas from Denmark in succession!

    Really enjoyed your take on this too Paul- although hope
    you’re not insinuating anyone in particular when you talk about “slimy”
    characters!!

    I guess we’ll all have our own perceptions about what’s been good,
    bad or indifferent in politics, and in Labour, over the past 30 years or so.

    I think drama is a great medium to explore politics;
    eg can grapple thorny scenarios more imaginatively,
    and can be a political tool in itself, eg use of narrative
    and imagery.

    Perhaps a good topic might be “austerity” and the global banking crisis;
    effects on people’s lives; there are bound to be historical references/echos
    to that too.

    I do think the political arena in recent years has become rather lacklustre
    and uninspiring; this kind of drama brings it to life!

    Thanks, Jo.

  • Anonymous

    I’m really sorry to have missed this, although caught clips on BBC4.
    Perhaps it does hilight the difference in gender politics/cultural attitudes
    between Scandinavian/European countries and institutions- eg Parliament
    and media?

    Certainly refreshing compared to the traditional male bastions
    over the last few decades- and even debating things like whether to install
    “top totty” beer in the MP’s bar in 2012?

    2 brilliant dramas from Denmark in succession!

    Really enjoyed your take on this too Paul- although hope
    you’re not insinuating anyone in particular when you talk about “slimy”
    characters!!

    I guess we’ll all have our own perceptions about what’s been good,
    bad or indifferent in politics, and in Labour, over the past 30 years or so.

    I think drama is a great medium to explore politics;
    eg can grapple thorny scenarios more imaginatively,
    and can be a political tool in itself, eg use of narrative
    and imagery.

    Perhaps a good topic might be “austerity” and the global banking crisis;
    effects on people’s lives; there are bound to be historical references/echos
    to that too.

    I do think the political arena in recent years has become rather lacklustre
    and uninspiring; this kind of drama brings it to life!

    Thanks, Jo.

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