Few in Danish politics will leave behind as obvious and visual a legacy as Svend Auken. The country’s landscape, specked with the thousands of windmills that have become a symbol of Denmark, can be traced back to Auken’s efforts to move the country towards a greater reliance on wind power.'
Auken passed away today at the age of 66 after a long battle with cancer. His 38 years of service in elected office for the Social Democrats made him parliament’s longest serving MP. Auken will also be remembered for his staunch opposition to single-use drink containers such as aluminium cans, ensuring that the country had one of the highest bottle return rates in the world. The final vestiges of that policy came to an end this year when bottlers said they would no longer refill plastic bottles and instead recycle them after being returned.
But despite his accomplishments as environment minister, Auken may be remembered most for what he was prevented from accomplishing.
A political prodigy who entered politics in 1971 at the age of 28, Auken earned the title of ‘the best prime minister Denmark never had’ after his Social Democrat party, despite a landslide 1990 election win that saw it capture 37.4 percent of the votes, failed to secure a coalition with the Social Liberal party which was sceptical of his left-leaning ideas.
Two years later, Auken was dethroned as leader of the Social Democrats in a palace coup led by Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, who later served four terms as prime minister.
Auken later said of the ouster that it was ‘traumatic ... but that was all it was’, showing that he was more interested in putting the past behind him and working to influence politics rather than dwell on past defeats.
Although Auken once declared he ‘was in love with the environment’, last year he pointed to the creation of the national early retirement scheme as his biggest political accomplishment. The scheme is designed to allow blue collar workers, worn out from years of physical labour, the opportunity to stop working before the pensionable age.
The scheme was created in the 1970s while Auken was serving as work minister. In the years since, the programme has come to encompass white as well as blue collar workers, but characteristic for the idealistic Auken he continued his political career well past the qualifying age of 60 and slowed by the cancer that eventually ended his life.
He announced he was ill in 2008 and wrote of his decision to remain in public office: ‘The amount time you have left to live (be is short or long) is life itself. And you shouldn’t squander it.’
Political ally or foe, few would argue that Auken squandered his life.