Let us begin with a quote: “The ice is melting at the pøwls”. This statement, pronounced with a heavy accent, made the rounds when Villy Søvndal became foreign minister in September 2011 and was used by media and sections of the public to ridicule a veteran politician taking up an unexpected portfolio. Actually, if you google Villy Søvndal, Google suggests “Villy Søvndal taler engelsk” as the second choice after his name.
This tells us a nasty truth about the Danish political and media scene. If we look at Søvndal’s biography, we learn that he was born in Northwestern Jutland in 1952 as the son of a smallholder, went on to pass the realeksamen (an equivalent to the German Mittlere Reife) and later an HF certificate (an alternative road to the studentexam) before training as a school teacher. In short, he broke a family pattern by taking a higher education and moving from manual to academic labour. Even if the Danish society and educational system was changing in the 1960s and 1970s, it still took some effort to move from one social and cultural environment to another and this was the first of Søvndal’s major feats. And for somebody of Søvndal’s generation, easy access to US TV series, extensive travels or stays in the US at a tender age (Søvndal did travel a lot in Europe and the Americas as a young man, though) or for that matter dialect coaches in secondary school was out of the question.
Usually, I hate it when Danes refer to Janteloven, but in Søvndal’s case it actually applies: “So you have made it and changed the course of your own life? Don’t think we respect you for that”.
Politically, Søvndal first made his name in local politics in his adopted home town of Kolding before moving into national politics in 1994. Following Holger K. Nielsen’s resignation as chairman of SF in 2005, Søvndal was elected as his successor in a membership vote. This marked the start of his second major feat: The repositioning and reorganization of SF with the aim of making it a potential coalition partner for the Social Democrats. The idea was, first, to attract blue-collar voters, which the Social Democrats couldn’t reach, from the centre-right and, second, to streamline the party organization so that the parliamentary leadership would enjoy a higher degree of freedom in parliamentary negotiations.
The years from 2005 to 2010 marked the third golden era of SF (with the mid- and late-1960s as the first and the 1980s as the second) where the charming if erratic Søvndal almost overshadowed the always-controlled Helle Thorning-Schmidt as the leader of the opposition. There were times when Very Serious Commentators expected SF to pass the Social Democrats in opinions polls and perhaps even in the coming elections.
And then Fortuna changed her mind and just about everything which could go wrong, went wrong. In January 2010, SF deputy chairman Jakob Nørhøj died unexpectedly from illness, electoral support began to wither as the Red-Green Alliance as the new star on the block began to attract voters who feared that the pragmatic line of the SD-SF alliance meant that traditional social and economic policies were being abandoned. The September 2011 election left the left wing and SF sufficiently strong to allow the formation of the first government including SF but Søvndal and his hatchet man Ole Sohn looked like spent forces from Day 1.
Sometime during the summer or late autumn of 2012, Søvndal must have realized that he didn’t have the power to lead the party through what will be a very tough campaign in the run-up to the next election due sometime in 2014 or 2015 and resigned as party chairman. This led to a final political disaster as Astrid Krag lost the membership vote against the inexperienced left-winger Annette Vilhelmsen. That Søvndal and his wife were both hit by serious illness this autumn somehow appears as the icing on the cake – and it does raise the issue if Søvndal had suffered from some kind of bad health which could have limited his energy earlier.
So, what we have is a mixed story. In many ways, Søvndal’s life and career until 2010 was impressive and it should be an inspiration for gifted children from non-academic families. The reception of Søvndal should also remind us that the privileged of Danish society are nowhere as tolerant and accommodating to outsiders as they (we) like to pretend.
Why did the winds of fortune change so rapidly, then? Deep forces were working against Søvndal and SF: The economy was one likely explanation. It is hard to combine left-wing politics with the austerity economics adopted across the board by governments all over Europe. SF tried to ape some aspects of New Labour tactics (I personally went ballistic every time I had to suffer through statements by Thor Möger Petersen who just had to mention “hard-working families” in Every. Single. Sentence) but this obviously was not sufficient. In 2011, SF had little choice but to enter the coalition with the Social Democrats and the Social Liberals but the party was on the defensive even before the negotiations over a coalition agreement had begun. This didn’t fit Søvndal’s temperament, but secondly SF was still in a period of transition organizationally and politically when it had to face the constraints of government and the challenge from the Red-Greens. The change from a membership-based to a leadership-based organization is a major one and events suggest that it was far from finished when the tide started to change in 2010.
What remains, though, is one of the most fascinating leaderships of any Danish party, especially as we can’t say if it was mostly a success or a failure politically.