Maybe it was the change of decade, maybe we needed some cold exoticism, maybe we were craving for Northern lights. Whatever the reason, a delightful wave of drama made in Scandinavia swept across Britain in the 2010’s. Nordic noir, with its complex plots, its wan light and its overall sadness took over my life and I look back with misty eyes at many a Saturday night spent under the blankets hiding from the chilling crimes of The Bridge and rooting for Sarah Lund, aka Woolly Jumper, in The Killing. However brilliant these two classics were, and they truly were, they could only be the altar boys and girls to the high priestess Birgitte Nyborg in the best political drama you will ever have the privilege to watch, Borgen.
Of course, we’ve had a long list of great political drama over the years, what with West Wing, House of Cards, Homeland, The Americans or Yes Minister, but here is the rub, they are all set in the very familiar settings of American or British politics. Borgen takes you to the totally unfamiliar, for most of us anyway, world of Danish politics. Yes, Danish, like the pastry, the mermaid and hygge! Yes Danish, as in a small country seldom mentioned in the news. And once you dive into this world, you will never ever want to leave it, pining for Birgitte, the fictional Danish Prime Minister, to swoop in and put the world to rights!
It is my firm belief that any students of politics and international relations ought to watch it, and not just for a chance to hear the Danish language once in their lives! Why, you may say? Here are my top ten reasons.
1. Power and its corrosion: watch how a young-looking, enthusiastic, delighted politician waltzed into the royal palace with a beaming smile to be made prime minister and then compare this image with her sombre-looking, gaunt, paranoid self two years later.
2. Coalition politics: the coalition years in Britain were regarded as a stupendous oddity, what with single-party majority being the norm. I remember watching the news at the time and seeing journalists at a loss to explain what would happen. And that was with just two parties in talks. Imagine a myriad of parties potentially being able to form a coalition government and you get Borgen. It is the perfect primer for understanding coalitions, down to the intrigue, behind-the-scene talks and back-stabbing that makes Games of Throne look like a mere kitten.
3. The EU versus national politics: watch how nobody wanted to go and represent Denmark at the EU level and watch how being sent to Brussels became either a punishment or a not-so-subtle nudge to retirement. And then, ask yourselves, why?
4. Small countries and foreign policies: what can you do as a small country to somehow weigh in on the affairs of the world? Watch in particular the illuminating episode about South Sudan.
5. Birth of a new party: we have seen many new parties popping up in recent time, like Podemos in Spain, the 5 star movement in Italy, or the French President’s “la République en Marche”. We’ve heard about the enthusiasm of a new adventure but also about teething problems, organisational issues, original members leaving over accusations of betraying the raison d’être of the new party. Do you want a vivid example? Watch how Birgitte sets up a new party after coming back from retirement, watch the delirious first few weeks, the volunteers all chipping in and then watch how, at some point, decisions have to be made, a political line has to be decided upon, how that inevitably leads to disappointing some members, and how lines of command slowly but surely creeps up.
6. Devolution: what do you do as a country when, as a result of past colonialism, you have overseas territories? You may have given them large autonomy, as is the case with Denmark and Greenland but should you go further? And what are you supposed to do when faced with social and economic issues that are very different from the mainland? Watch the episode when Birgitte visits Greenland and see! And watch carefully how her attitude changes when faced with the situation directly.
7. Political communication: What would politics be without spin? In that regards, Kasper Juul, Birgitte’s chief of communication, is a model to closely analyse for anyone who fancies this line of work. Watch how he snatches victory from the jaw of defeat by turning seemingly terrible news into perfect examples of Birgitte’s competence. And watch how he uses language. You don’t have to go all post-modern to realise that yes language is indeed power!
8. Sex work: episode 5 of series 3 is the absolute best primer on all the issues surrounding sex workers you will ever see. It’s that good that it is being shown in sociology modules at universities! And watch how Birgitte’s opinion changes and asks yourselves about active citizenship.
9. Pigs: only Borgen could devote a whole episode, and I really mean a whole episode, about pig farming! And guess what, it is fascinating! Pig farming is huge in Denmark but with its large-scale industrialisation come numerous ethical issues, such as animal welfare, and the demise of traditional farmers. Watch it and you’ll see agriculture in a totally different way!
10. Politics and life: Borgen is truly fascinating in the way it intertwines personal and political life. I don’t want to reveal the whole plot so let’s just ask a few questions: how do politicians combine professional and personal life? What effect does their life have on their partners and children? Can you ever leave politics once you’ve reached the highest post of responsibility? What do you do when you retire? Will politics always pull you back into the ring?
Add to these 10 reasons numerous sub-plots, Copenhagen itself and a superb cast and there is only one conclusion: you have to watch it!!! And then, just as I did, you can go on a pilgrimage to Copenhagen, roaming the streets in the hope of catching Birgitte somewhere, or failing that, Sarah Lund. Only kidding! Or am I… 🙂