Denmark - 1901-1913 - Constitutional Reform
When the political system was changed in 1901, a new constitutional practice was introduced, prohibiting any government from staying in power when faced with a vote of no confidence from a majority in the Folketing. The Left Reform Party came to power in 1901 and had an absolute majority in the Folketing until 1906. The Right and the Independent Conservatives kept their majority in the Landsting, however, forcing the government to consult one or the other when passing laws.
The Left Reform Party lost its majority in 1906 following a split in 1905, resulting in the creation of Det Radikale Venstre (the Social Liberal Party) which soon gained a central position in Danish politics. The four large parties which were to dominate Danish politics in the years to come had now emerged. None of them have ever held an absolute majority; successive governments have only been able to carry through their own policies by co-operating with one or more of the other parties. Compromise had become a key element in Danish politics.
The time leading up to the First World War saw a number of reforms. Under the leadership of the eminent tactician J.C. Christensen, the Left Reform Party carried through some of the most important parts of the party’s programme: A tax reform in 1903 replaced land and property taxes with income tax and capital tax and introduced a land tax assessment. The three-year upper secondary school was introduced in the same year and was linked to the elementary school by a middle school.
A law was passed introducing elected parish councils. Women were initially given the right to vote in these parish council elections, and in 1908 the Rigsdag also gave them the right to vote in municipal council elections. A number of new laws concerning the labour market were brought in to supplement the existing collective bargaining system. Government authorisation and state subsidies for unemployment benefit schemes were introduced in 1907. Conciliation procedures were introduced in 1910 along with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (now known as Arbejdsretten, the Industrial Court). The Left Reform Party, from 1910 Venstre (The Liberals), and J.C. Christensen were weakened when it was discovered in 1908 that the Minister of Justice, P.A. Alberti, had been involved in large-scale embezzlement and fraud, though J.C. Christensen was acquitted following impeachments for having been responsible.
A lengthy debate concerning an amendment to the constitution began shortly after and only ended during the First World War with the passing of the 1915 constitution as the coping stone in the large programme of reforms; it abolished the limited franchise associated with the Landsting and enfranchised women and servants. It also brought in proportional representation for Folketing elections, resulting in a fairer distribution of the seats.
The time was favorable for reforms in economic terms. Both agriculture and industry were seeing strong growth, and the number of people employed in industry, trade and transport rose dramatically. Danish industry was the world leader in many areas, e.g. the development of diesel engines for ships. Agriculture benefited from the change to livestock farming, and in 1914, agricultural products still accounted for almost 90% of the Danish export market with butter and bacon for the British market as the most important items.
In matters relating to foreign policy, Denmark was in an ambiguous position. The country was economically dependent on exports to Great Britain, but as regards security policy it was dependent on the relationship with its ever more powerful German neighbour. This latter connection was made even more complicated by the existence of the pro-Danish people in Schleswig. They were at times subjected to harsh repression which imbued contemporary patriotic sentiments with a strong anti-German flavor.
Successive Danish governments chose to keep a low profile in the international arena. There was a general agreement to continue the policy of neutrality, and an unspoken acknowledgement that it had to be carried out in a way which did not offend Germany. Despite this understanding, there was no agreement between the parties on defence policy. The Right wanted to build up a strong military defence; the Social Liberals and the Social Democrats demanded total or partial disarmament. In 1909, the Right and the Liberals entered into an agreement which strengthened the armed forces and Copenhagen’s coast defences. Both the Social Liberal Party and the Social-Democratic Party made gains at the Folketing elections in 1913 and with support from the Social Democrats, a Social Liberal government was set up under the leadership of C.Th. Zahle. The new government stayed in power until 1920.
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