Lesley Riddoch: Danes lead the way in political participation

When it comes to public participation in politics a Danish island is leading the way, writes Lesley Riddoch.
The Folkemodet festival of politics on the Danish island of BornholmThe Folkemodet festival of politics on the Danish island of Bornholm
The Folkemodet festival of politics on the Danish island of Bornholm

Theresa May’s reputation is in tatters, her empathy is in question and seven thousand deals wait to be negotiated as Brexit talks start today.
The Prime Minister could be excused for dreaming of an early June recess - angry citizens long for the chance to confront the Prime Minister and force her to acknowledge that austerity, phony democracy and crony capitalism all played their part in the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Suddenly there is consensus that post-Thatcher decades of cost-cutting, de-regulation, elitism, greed, inequality and the entrenchment of Britain’s uniquely archaic, top-down version of democracy all contributed to the terrible loss of life in Kensington and the fear that now stalks thousands of tower blocks across Britain.

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But is there a raised expectation that politicians will change tack or that the media will force long-term change once shock and fury subside and Brexit starts grabbing the headlines again?

There is anger, hope and determination that this tragedy will be a turning point in British political history, but expectations are not high.

Britain doesn’t do responsive, open, consensual or grassroots – nor does Scotland. Not at least, on the scale witnessed this weekend on Bornholm - a Danish island which has just hosted the biggest act of political engagement in Europe and maybe the world.

The Folkemødet (literally public meeting) saw 900 organisations put on 3,000 events attracting 110,000 participants over four days.

They discussed a project to turn the cross-border region created by the Oresund Bridge into the world’s leading green economy. Inhabitants of Skane don’t seem to mind belonging to “Greater Copenhagen” – after all the southern Swedish region was once part of Greater Denmark.

If it succeeds “Greater Copenhagen” will change the political and economic gravity of northern Europe and provide a template for like-minded others, facilitated by the EU membership of both countries. Big stuff. Leaders of Denmark’s new Alternative party focused on restoring empathy to politics – part of of the pioneering platform that helped them win 9 seats in recent elections.

Health, integration, terrorism and education were popular themes and there was a capacity audience for my own talk on Scotland, Brexit and independence – plus half an hour of polite but very probing questioning.

Sunday was devoted to local issues including plans to build a Museum of Light, in celebration of the fact Bornholm is regularly the sunniest place in Denmark and plans to service a massive expansion of offshore wind in the Baltic from island ports.

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Folkemødet’s carnival atmosphere encourages canny questioning of party leaders and covert cooperation between them.

It’s something old-fashioned, “us and them” Britain desperately needs to emulate but would find impossibly hard to run.

Edinburgh does have a Politics Festival – but it’s indoors, run by the parliamentary events team not the people, features celebrities more than politicians and attracts as many tourists as citizens.

Yet Scottish democracy needs the consensus-building, policy focus and reality-proofing Mc Folkemødet would provide.

So is there a Scottish island that wants to give it a go?

Bornholm organisers are happy to share the secrets of their success.

The number of events is limited only by the amount of rentable ground space in the main coastal town of Allinge.

Political parties get a discount for hiring space and like-minded charitable groups are encouraged to save money by joining forces and sharing them.

The rules are simple – participants must involve the public and hold events for the duration of the Festival.

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No cynical “show and go” style consultation is permitted here.

There is commercial event sponsorship which helps fund a final day of local Bornholm focus and a five-strong team of professional organisers head-hunted from large Danish music festivals but now living and working permanently on the island. Accommodation is problematic but Bornholmers rent out rooms, whole homes and summer houses and some participants hire boats as floating venues and park them in Allinge harbour.

Some parties and big companies have long-standing leases – some unions have bought and renovated derelict property.

The Folkemødet - now in its seventh year - was modeled on an older event held every July on the Swedish Baltic island of Gotland (population 57,000) since 1985.

The Almedalen week in Visby has grown in clout ever since and in 2010 canny Bornholmers (watching Swedish TV coverage and spotting island similarities) persuaded their Mayor and the Danish Culture Minister to visit the Gotland event with a view to reproducing it on Bornholm. In 2011 the first Folkemødet took place.

The media’s role in all of this is huge.

There’s a Bornholm joke that every home has an owner, a dog and a journalist.

Indeed Denmark (population 5.7m) has four national radio, four national TV stations, a 24hr news channel and a string of international hit series like Borgen, The Bridge and The Killing. Bornholm (pop 40,000) has a 24 hour radio station employing 40 people, a local TV station employing sixty and a daily newspaper where forty people work.

All are working flat out broadcasting Folkemødet debates to the whole of Denmark.

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Initially, there was scepticism that ordinary Danes would seize the chance to quiz decision makers but the sceptics have been proved wrong.

Folkemødet is well-timed, coming just after the final days of the Danish parliamentary year.

Danish political culture is all about cooperation and consensus-building thanks to powerful and genuinely local government together with a century of proportional voting.

So party leaders cannot afford not to come. Folkemodet founders involved them in 2010 cannily obtaining general agreement that the festival would open every year with a speech by the Prime Minister (cleverly roping him or her into attendance.)

Each party has a half hour slot where there are no competing events – the best time slots on Friday and Saturday go the largest parties and the smaller parties get the rest.

The Folkemødet belief is that problems big and small benefit from grassroot-led cooperation. That might sound irritatingly idealistic to British/Scottish ears, but it’s also a reflection of how little room for discussion exists in our top-down political system, how little trust is generated between governments and citizens and how much our media mirrors the unspoken belief that people-led solutions stand no chance whatsoever of implementation by the political class

We must escape this all-pervading atmosphere of nihilism and disconnect.

A Scottish Folkemødet would be an excellent start.