First, a personal recollection. Back in the early 1990s a group of historians organised a series of meetings at Christiansborg Castle – the scene of the crimes, if you wish – where participants in crucial political events were invited to tell about what happened and their own roles at the time. A sort of oral political history.1
Obviously, the “Red Cabinet” – the ill-fated cooperation between the Social Democrats and the Socialist Party in 1966-1967 – was one of the themes covered and as a prominent member of the Socialist Party, Gert Petersen, the party chairman between 1974 and 1991, was invited to tell his side of the story.
As I recall, the meeting started with some confusion because there had been a mix-up in the bookings of rooms, but Petersen took this in his stride. The group was given a room, Petersen sat on a table and started his talk. And continued for something like 90 minutes, keeping the absolute attention of his audience.
Of course, we weren’t any old audience, but a group of
politics nerds political historians and former and active politicians, but I still dare any member of the Folketing to give a fluent and engaging 90 minute talk without using a manuscript, teleprompter or PowerPoint. I’m convinced that, had journalism and politics not gotten the better of him, Gert Petersen would have been a much-loved teacher and writer. And who knows: Maybe even a Danish equivalent to Eric Hobsbawm?
But politics became Gert Petersen’s vocation. If we leave aside a brief flirtation with nazism as a boy, Petersen spent his life on the Danish left wing becoming a member of the Danish Communist Party in 1945 and following the party’s chairman Aksel Larsen to become one of the founders of SF, the Socialist Party, in 1959.
Petersen’s big break came in 1974 when he took over the leadership of the party, coincidentally the same year when Poul Schlüter took over the Conservative leadership. Both faced massive challenges and during their long tenures, Petersen to 1991, Schlüter to 1993, managed to turn initial defeats into success.
In 1974, SF just like the Conservative Party was plagued with intense factional battles and Gert Petersen’s first task was to establish himself as the party’s middle man and internally stabilising force while the party, which had won 17 seats in the 1971 election slumped to 9 in 1975 and just 7 in 1977. It is easy to forget, that VS and DKP almost pulled even with SF in 1977 and that SF was seen as an endangered party, even a spent force, in the mid-1970s.
Then, Petersen’s and SF’s luck changed. The mobilisation on the extreme left following 1968 started to recede but Petersen and the rest of the SF leadership rightly saw that SF had a potential in the anti-nuclear power movement – this led to a focus on environmental policy in the 1980s onwards – and in the peace movement and the party managed to attract former DKP and VS voters as the broad church of the Danish left wing. In 1979, the party won 11 seats at the general election, and in 1981 a staggering 21 – unfortunately for Petersen and SF at the expense of the Social Democrats.
The 1980s were active years for Gert Petersen both as a politician and a writer, but even if the party maintained its support at the 1984 election and even won 27 seats in 1987 – SF’s best performance ever – and was able to influence decisions on foreign and development policy as well as environmental policy through the “alternative majority” of Social Liberals, Social Democrats and Socialists, the party was ridiculed as winning from the hammock. The “working class majority” of Social Democrats and Socialists remained frustratingly elusive.
With the decline of the peace movement and the fall of the iron curtain, SF’s and Petersen’s luck also began to run out. In 1990 the party suffered a major defeat in the election and in 1991, Petersen quietly bowed out but left SF an orderly, if slightly dull house.
- The meetings were taped but I’m not sure where the material is now. Probably the Danish National Archives. [↩]