Borgen Returns

15 November 2013

Marlyn Glen


Before the much–awaited return of the fictional female head of government of a real European country returns to BBC4 this Saturday evening, this political prospectus from the artist Grayson Perry has had another outing .

He has made this ebullient contribution to the progress of women in society with these observations in an article for “Prospect” magazine entitled “If I ruled the World”

“All of my governments would be entirely female for at least a generation, or until men learnt to adapt to the modern world.”

“Collectively I think they would produce a more empathetic and pragmatic form of politics.

“Men seem to be preoccupied with concepts like ‘honour’ and ‘respect.’ “

Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg would certainly share this salutation as she returns to BBC4 in Saturday, but this time as a former Prime Minster

How events have transpired (or because it is politics, how events have conspired ) to make this so, we shall no doubt learn over the next weeks. 

The central theme of the series so far has been Birgitte’s desperate struggle to achieve a balance between an omnipresent insatiably-demanding job and her family life.

She enjoys being Prime Minister of Denmark, despite all of its political consequences .

The reality of coalition government and the inevitable necessary compromises reached are part and parcel of governing across Europe, and so are no stranger to her.

Her story began as the leader of a small political party that secured an unexpected election victory on the merits of her principled performance in TV debating during the election campaign.

Small party idealism then reaches an accommodation with power and the coalition that she assembles teeters from one week to the next.

Machinations and conspiracies are the order of the day, somewhat distant from concepts of “honour” and “respect” that Grayson Perry says that men are pre-occupied with.

Party leaders and elected politicians assume less importance for her than unelected advisers and her spin doctor.

But as the daily strain of holding her political coalition together takes its toll on Birgitte, it also takes its toll on her marriage

Her husband had initially parked his career to help bring up the family .

Series 2 seems them divorced. 

Borgen's appeal lies in the strength of its principal character.

She strives to be true to herself as a public figure with the right to a private life and a family life.

Every day she is at the mercy of political forces within the coalition but outside of her party.

Borgen deals with an issue that is relatively new for political drama but at the basis of everyday life for women, the compatibility of work and family, career, motherhood, and fulfilment.

The personal sacrifices are ones familiar to many of Borgen’s audience, namely raising a family alongside maintaining a career.

These are amongst the most difficult choices to make.

The American writer Anne-Marie Slaughter has written :

“If a man announces that he will have a child, nobody looks at him and asks : “How are you going to manage?” But everybody looks at the woman and asks that same question.

“If you really want to get equality, where men and women can have careers and families, then you have to make a lot of changes and those changes are political, economic, and social.”

A change in the attitudes towards the status of caring as being something important and necessary is a pre-requisite for wider options in careers for women.

Until then, many women will have the same dilemmas as Birgitte Nyborg, though not in such a high-powered position

The appeal of Borgen has stretched beyond those interested and active in politics.

Birgitte Nyborg's style of government  has already been seen as the preferred  model for running the NHS over that of former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In a report by the think-tank The Kings Fund entitled 

“NHS leaders of the future: more like Thatcher or Nyborg?”,

Its Chief Executive, Chris Ham a self-declared Borgen fan, has been contemplating on “the lessons the series holds for NHS leaders”

He describes Birgitte Nyborg as “being willing to compromise when necessary. Her skill lies in building alliances with others and finding common cause, even when this seems unlikely”

By contrast, he regards Margaret Thatcher as “ a conviction politician who brooked little dissent. In the now famous phrase, the lady was not for turning and was willing to pursue her convictions even in the face of opposition and outright conflict. These strengths ultimately became weaknesses”

“What relevance does this comparison have to the NHS? For a decade or more, top leaders in the NHS have been closer in style to Thatcher than to Nyborg, making things happen as agents of the government of the day by overseeing the implementation of targets designed to improve patient care. In the process they have adopted a ‘pace-setting’ style consistent with the performance management culture that has characterised the fact that the NHS has been led from the top.

“The shortcomings of pace-setting and performance management have come back into focus…….now more than ever public sector agencies must rise above their own concerns and reach out to others to meet the needs of the populations they serve.

“It follows that in future NHS leaders need to be much more like Nyborg than Thatcher.”

This final series of Borgen may well then have an influence far beyond its initial purpose as high-quality television drama.



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