I’m breaking my promise of not doing any politics blogging during my more-or-less vacation here but the death of the former chairman of the Danish Social Democrats and former labour and environment minister Svend Auken more than merits a mention.
First a note to non-Danish readers: In Denmark Auken (I’ve read somewhere that the name is Dutch, by the way) is best known for being de-selected as Social Democratic chairman in 1992 and thus becoming the first ordinary chairman of the Social Democrats since P. Knudsen (who was excused as the party until 1914 didn’t want to enter government until it commanded a majority but who would probably have made a competent prime minister) not to become prime minister. So, what happened and what was Auken’s role in Danish politics since he entered parliament in 1971?
In a statement, former prime minister Poul Schlüter called Auken the last of the old-school Social Democrats. This is wrong: Auken belonged to a more or less well-defined group of Social Democrats who ushered in a new era, when they entered the Folketing at the 1971 election. The generation which was born between 1895 and 1910 and came of age in the 1920s gave way for a new generation born in the late 1930s and early 1940s who came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Auken and the group around him wrote history already during their first year in parliament as they lead a minority openly opposing Danish membership in the EC. This hadn’t happened in the Social Democratic party since the left-wing split in 1917 to form the Communist Party and in the labour movement solidarity and unity were essential values. Just a few years earlier, a stunt like “Social Democrats against the EC” would have ended Auken’s political career for good. But then again, the Social Democrats of the 1970s were not the Social Democrats of the 1960s.
As a left-winger and an effective orator and campaigner, Auken was useful to Anker Jørgensen and he was made political spokesman for the party and later labour minister. During the long spell in opposition he again served as political spokesman and parliamentary strategist. It was here his weaknesses became clear: Auken had a tendency to win the battles while losing the wars against Poul Schlüter.
In December 1983, Schlüter failed to get a majority for the government’s budget as the majority of the Progress Party under Mogens Glistrup wanted more concessions – or just to make some noise – and Auken and Jørgensen decided to break with the Danish parliamentary tradition with the argument that the Social Democrats were against the budget.
And so what, non-Danes may ask. Well, according to Danish parliamentary tradition responsible political parties vote for the budget at the final reading unless the government hasn’t been able to secure a majority in advance. If that is the case, then it is perfectly okay to test the government’s majority. But Auken chose to play the policy card. The Social Democrats won the vote but lost the election because Poul Schlüter cleverly managed to frame the Social Democrats as an irresponsible party and turn the attention from his own problems with the Progress Party to the economic policies of the Social Democratic governments between 1979 and 1982. 1984 wasn’t 1929 even if many Social Democrats wanted to believe so – and continued to believe so until the early 1990s. Propaganda and wishful thinking got the better of long-term strategy.
The pattern repeated itself with the process leading up to the 1988 “missile election”. The government claimed that the foreign minister had reached a gentlemen’s agreement with the Social Democrats. Auken – by now the party chairman after claimed there wasn’t an agreement. The Social Liberals said there was – and then bizarrely supported the Social Democrats in the vote in parliament. But the image stuck: Auken was not somebody you could do parliamentary business with.
This prompts the question how he become chairman of the Social Democrats in the first place. Compared with his predecessors, he didn’t look like an obvious choice. He had a background in the academic middle class, not the working class and even if society had changed there were people around with a more appropriate social background. He was an orator rather than an organiser. He was careless with details. You might as well have made Niels Helveg Petersen chairman of the party.
But then again, who were the alternatives? By the late 1980s, Knud Heinesen was too old, Svend Jakobsen had put his career on the backburner, Ritt Bjerregaard was far too divisive, Mogens Lykketoft the technocrat’s technocrat and nobody, absolutely nobody, outside the trade unions had ever heard of a guy name Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. And Anker Jørgensen wanted Svend Auken as his successor.
For a short time, it looked like Auken could defeat the demons haunting his parliamentary career and make it to the prime minister’s office. The 1990 election was a famous victory for the Social Democrats but things turned sour when it was revealed that neither the Social Liberals nor the Centre Democrats wanted to support a Social Democratic government under Auken. It would be too left-wing for the two parties and, well, Auken was not a credible partner in negotiations. And if you’re not a credible partner in negotiations in the Folketing, you’re a dead man politically. That left a big zombie Social Democracy facing an undead government until the party finally produced a credible alternative to Svend Auken. One result of this political impasse was a massive unemployment crisis in the early 1990s, another that immigration became a dominating issue in Danish politics. And maybe the Maastricht Treaty was yet another casualty of the situation as the Social Democrats couldn’t mount an effective yes-campaign in early 1992.
In any other party, the deselection of Svend Auken in 1992 would have been just another change of party leader, but for the Social Democrats it touched more than one nerve in the party. Getting rid of the chairman was the rational outcome, but it felt wrong, and it also left the party’s left-wing with a permanent grudge against the new leadership. Auken on the other hand finally proved that he could be an effective minister in Poul Nyrup Rasmussen’s goverments between 1993 and 2001 – but the question is how much of the success of his time as environment minister was due to the professionalism of the Danish civil service. In his role as minister, Auken could provide visions and oratory, while the civil service could organise his work and formulate workable solutions.
In the 1920s, the ever-caustic K.K. Steincke once said about Frederik Borgbjerg who had a tendency to get carried away by his own oratory: “First Borgbjerg delivers the speech and then the speech delivers him”. The same could be said of Svend Auken. One crucial difference between Borgbjerg and Auken was that P. Knudsen had a better hand in choosing his assistants (Th. Stauning!) than Anker Jørgensen.