Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Denmark’s former prime minister, on Saturday announced that his new centrist party would be called Moderaterne, meaning “The Moderates”, meaning that if he has any success, we’ll forever be having to distinguish it from the Swedish right-wing party of the same name.
But it should perhaps come as no surprise that Rasmussen, who long led Denmark’s Venstre party, should give his party a name that will generate misunderstandings.
Venstre, which literally means “Left” and calls itself “The Liberal Party” in English, is neither left-wing nor liberal.
Indeed, under Rasmussen it was arguably the most illiberal, right-wing government in Danish history, passing laws to strip refugees of their jewellery, ban the burqa, and hold foreign criminals on a tiny prison island.
The reason for Venstre‘s confusing name is historical. It was originally founded in 1870 as a union of groups and smaller parties opposing the then dominant conservative party Højre, the “Right party”. Det Forenede Venstre, or “The United Left” was largely dominated by agrarian groups and did not start evolving from being a traditional farmer’s party until well into the 1960s.
Venstre isn’t even the the Danish party with the most confusing name.
Rather than being the rabid Marxist-Leninist outfit you might expect, Radikale Venstre, meaning literally “the Radical Left”, is the most pragmatic party in Danish politics, a centrist party willing to work with either the Liberals or the Social Democrats to pursue its sensible reform goals.
The came about as a group which split from Venstre in 1905 over differences in military spending. At least its English name, the “Social Liberal Party”, largely reflects what it’s about.
The names of the other parliamentary parties make more sense, Det Konservative Folkeparti, or “The Conservative party”, really is conservative, the Enhedslisten, literally “The Unity List” but calling itself the “Red-Green Alliance” is both far-left and environmentalist, “Liberal Alliance” is libertarian, and “Nye Borgerlige”, which calls itself The New Right, is arguably the ideological heir of the global New Right movement (albeit with a far-Right position on immigration).
What about the Social Democrats? Some would argue they currently undergoing the same sort of shift across the political centre that Denmark’s Liberals underwent in the 1980s, when Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, the father of the party’s current leader, adopted a near-Thatcherite line, calling for a smaller public sector, greater harnessing of the market, and privatisation.
It’s certainly hard to square the current party, which is tightening immigrant laws beyond anything the Liberals dared to do, with the Social Democrats as they were under the leadership of Poul Nyrup Rasmussen from 1993 to 2001.
As for Rasmussen’s Moderates, it’s hard to know exactly how they will be “moderate”.
The Swedish party adopted the name in 1969 when as the stuffy Högerpartiet, or “Right Party”, it was struggling to make any inroads against the then all-dominant Social Democrats.
The Social Democrats are now fairly dominant in Denmark too, but so far, Rasmussen has been vague on policy, saying in his speech on Denmark’s Constitution Day on Saturday, that the party will attempt to unite Danes from different backgrounds and political viewpoints.
“Some prefer mackerel, and others prefer salmon. Some have long Danish pedigrees, others have only recently chosen to live in Denmark,” he said.