An extract from Iain Macwhirter's new book, Road to Referendum.

In the spring of 2012, a new linguistic fashion hit Scottish politics. Suddenly, people were addressing each other as “Staatsminister”, speaking in curious hurdy gurdy accents and saying “Tak” instead of thanks.

This outbreak of pseudo-Nordic was caused by the popular Danish television series Borgen, which remade the American political drama The West Wing in Denmark with a woman Prime Minister.

When they showed the final two episodes at Edinburgh’s Film House in February, it packed the auditorium for three consecutive performances. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was not only in the audience, she interviewed the actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, who played the fictional Staatsminister Birgitte Nyborg.

Nationalists switched on to Borgen for two reasons. First of all, it showed small countries could produce very good television. The state broadcaster in Denmark, DR, that made Borgen and the police thriller The Killing, was outpacing the BBC in the production of well-financed and highly-acclaimed television drama.

One of the key unionist arguments against independence had always been that Scotland would be denied the benefit of the BBC, the “best broadcaster in the world”, and that a tiny country like Scotland would only be able to produce third-rate soap operas and boring political debate programmes.

The poor quality of the output of BBC Scotland has been a perennial complaint of the Scottish chattering classes, and the renowned Scottish historian, Professor Tom Devine, had launched a personal campaign against the station which in 2012 he labelled “a national disgrace”.

Clearly, however, small countries could do better even than the mighty BBC, which has produced nothing to compare with the sheer class of Borgen.

But more relevant to the nationalist case was the subject matter of Borgen. Week by week it explored political issues like military involvement in overseas conflict Afghanistan, welfare cuts, coalition politics and race relations, while following the disintegration of Staatsminister’s personal life. For the first time, Scottish viewers were able to see what political life might be like in a small country.

Denmark has a population of just over five million, has an advanced welfare state, is independent in Europe, and has one of the highest living standards in the world. It also showed you didn’t have to be a big country to have a vibrant political culture and it also showed how a small country could still have an impact on global affairs.

It also served as an antidote to Unionist claims an independent Scotland would be an impoverished and parochial statelet, without influence in the world and without cultural significance. Borgen was like a two-hour party political broadcast every Saturday night
This programme, it seemed, was doing for the referendum in 2014 what Braveheart did for the devolution referendum in 1997 and what The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil was to 1979. By pure chance, another piece of popular culture had come along just at the moment when Scots were reconsidering their place in the Union.

However, whereas Braveheart was patriotic nationalist tosh, Borgen was both intelligent and extremely well written and didn’t just play on Scotland’s enduring sense of grievance at the behaviour of its powerful neighbour.

It wasn’t even about Scotland. Denmark doesn’t look over its shoulder all the time, at anyone. This was grown-up politics and fitted the character of the times, as Scots – for the first time in 300 years – were thinking seriously about whether independence was a viable option.

It also reminded Scots that Nordic nations – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland – have been rather more successful, economically and socially, than Scotland, a country which is very similar in size and history. Scotland was a close trading partner of Denmark and the Low Countries in the late Middle Ages and the cultural connection with the Nordic countries is evident in the Scottish language.

But that was a long time ago. Denmark is now an independent social democratic country in Europe with a welfare state that also has one of the highest standards of living in the world.

According to the World Bank, Denmark has one of the lowest levels of inequality in the world. Social protection is generous. In Denmark, full-time childcare costs £200 a month; and unemployment benefit is £400 a week for two years. This compares with our job seekers allowance of £71 and then only for over-25s.

They pay for it, of course, in tax rates ranging from 42% to 60%. Yet, Denmark is also regarded as one of the most competitive economies in the world and one of the easiest places to do business. This despite the fact Denmark has its own currency, the krone, which is nominally pegged to the euro.

It also has one of the most flexible labour markets in the world, according to the World Bank, which comes as a great surprise to Labour “modernisers” in Britain. This is because the social protections allow people to move rapidly between jobs.

Further north, Norway is number one in the United Nations Human Development Index of well-being in terms of life expectancy, income and education. Its geography, population, economy and social outlook is very similar to Scotland’s, which is hardly surprising. They are both cold, northern countries which have had to develop a collective spirit to cope with the rigours of the climate.

I visited Norway and Denmark twice during the financial crisis to see how the “unaffordable” Nordic social model was faring. Norway, needless to say, doesn’t need to worry about debt because of its oil. But even Denmark seemed to be experiencing very little financial distress. Its borrowing level has risen to 45% of GDP, according to the Economist magazine’s public debt index, but this compares to the UK public debt to GDP level of 92% on the same measure. Denmark and Norway are two of the most stable economies in the world, according to the OECD.

This is puzzling to many unionists, because there is an almost universal assumption the European sovereign debt crisis has been caused by high levels of social protection. This is a myth. The most financially secure and economically dynamic economies in Europe are actually the small nordic nations – Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland.

Of course, these countries have been hit by the global slowdown, and Danish manufacturing exports are down. But at least it still is a formidable manufacturing nation. Norway has recently developed an unsustainable property bubble, largely because of inward investment looking for a safe haven in a country in a petroleum-backed currency – something an independent Scotland might have to face also. This will have to unwind, eventually.

However, it was hard not to look with some envy at Norway in 2012, with its growth rate of 2.5%, unemployment at 3% and inflation at 1.5%. Britain, by contrast was experiencing near zero growth, unemployment at 8% and inflation at nearly 4%. Whatever it is they’re doing over there, it works.

Road to Referendum is published tomorrow.