Daily Archives: 20 January 2013

Borgen: how realistic is it?

Birgitte Nyborg ChristensenI’ve spent this weekend catching up with Borgen and probably reading about it a bit too much. In particular, this critical review by Rachel Cooke came to my attention yesterday via political academic Stuart Wilks-Heeg’s twitter feed, prompting this exchange:


Personally speaking, while I wouldn’t say I’m “gripped” by Borgen, I’d say it does a pretty decent job at reflecting not just the reality of Danish coalition politics, but politics more generally. It doesn’t get everything right – I agree that some of the portrayals of journalism are unrealistic (spending a whole episode angsting over a single newspaper article – taking up days in real time – is simply ludicrous), but the way it actually reflects on why idealistic, principled people often end up failing to do the right thing or end up getting eaten alive, is very accurate.

By contrast, while much of The Thick of It rings true, for the most part it reflects on the kind of sofa-style politics which dominated Tony Blair’s government and which has to a large extent melted away (to be replaced by something which much more closely resembles Yes, Ministerplus ca change) – and it got coalition politics horribly wrong. The West Wing was famously “liberal porn” and is probably more successful for creating a modern mythology for the US Democrats to aspire to than in its ability to reflect reality. Also, is it me but does it feel that Nyborg has achieved more in two years than Bartlet achieved in eight?

We live in very consumerist times and so much political discourse is dominated by that. The left, in particular, appears to have been utterly hobbled by a lack of humility or civic duty and a mindset that is dominated by the fallacy that the customer (in this case, the angry activist) is always right. The inability to accept that bad things are sometimes done by good people on all sides leads to a conceitedness that leads people to simply repeat the same mistakes again and again. Nick Clegg is a perfect example of this, but so too are many of his critics.

I think this idea is dominated by journalists as well, and Rachel Cooke seems to struggle with the idea. It’s interesting that she chooses to criticise the second episode of the second season of Borgen and not the first, on the basis that it’s topic – choosing a Danish European Commissioner – is boring. In fact, the episode was anything but, exploring a whole range of fascinating themes such as how appointment to the Commission can be a career boost for some politicians and career suicide for others. The fact that stuff isn’t always straightforward is the definition of interesting. By contrast, the previous episode, while superficially about the war in Afghanistan and therefore “more” interesting, was remarkably pedestrian, with very little to say about the nature of politics.

Of course, understanding the difficulties of getting things done in politics is not the same thing as condoning mistakes, bad behaviour and outright treachery when they happen. But if we had a better grasp of this reality, I think we’d make a lot more progress in this country.

Where Cooke might be right is that somehow people can stomach a programme like Borgen when it is about another country and has subtitles in a way that we would struggle to accept a UK version, at least today (Professor Steven Fielding points out that we didn’t seem to have this blind spot in the recent past). I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the way we seem to distrust anything designed to promote political understanding in this country. Citizenship education never seemed to enjoy much support even amongst the teaching profession; the Electoral Commission was forced to scale back its citizenship and voter inclusion work. My own baby, Vote Match, struggles for funding despite – or rather because – while the general public seem to find it useful the political class distrust its simplicity.

If Borgen in its small way is slightly reversing that trend towards ever more impotent cynicism, then I can only welcome it.