Former Norwegian politician, minister, ambassador and author Reiulf Steen, who led the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap) from 1975 to 1981 died on Thursday morning, aged 80. Steen was one of the driving forces in Norwegian politics during the 70s, and remained politically active despite coping with depression and Parkinson’s disease in his later years.
Steen’s son Henrik announced his father’s death via Facebook, reported newspaper Aftenposten. “My dearly beloved father, Reiulf Steen (b. 1933), died at a quarter to eight this morning,” he wrote. “He has suffered from the terrible Parkinson’s disease for 10 years, and with a compromised immune system had a series of bouts of pneumonia the last half year, and finally the doctors could do nothing more.”
“The last three days he has been surrounded by his large family at Majorstuatunet nursing home, where he stayed, where we have reminisced and sang the classic working songs he was most fond of,” he wrote. “Party leader Jens Stoltenberg visited on Tuesday afternoon and talked with the former party chairman, parliamentary representative, ambassador – and much more.”
Steen grew up in Hurum, and became the deputy of the local Labour branch when he was just 14 years old. In 1950 when he was 17, Steen was elected the leader of the young Labour organization Buskerud AUF. He worked in a factory and as a journalist before becoming a full-time politician in 1958. Steen was elected to parliament in 1961, became Labour deputy in 1965, and spent 25 years in Labour’s central leadership group.
Steen spent 14 years as the head of Labour’s program committee, where he dealt with political factions and competitors. He was the transport minister from 1971-72 under Trygve Bratelli’s first government, became Labour leader in 1975, and was trade minister from 1979-1981 under Odvar Nordli’s government.
He lost the party leadership in 1981 after a bitter conflict with his deputy, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Aftenposten reported the pair had very different leadership styles and political traditions. “Reiulf would do what he could to make it as difficult as possible to be me,” Brundtland wrote later in her autobiography, Mitt Liv (My Life). “It was a scheme to purely fight, filled with anonymous complaints and allegations which have lived their own lives in all the years since.”
“With Gro Harlem Brundtland I have things left unfinished,” Steen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) in an 2012 interview. “And that I can take that blame for. I should among other things have tackled the situation before the party’s general congress in 1981, where she was to take over, differently. I regret that very much, I think everyone does. But, I believe I have managed to put it behind me without letting it paralyze me.”
Steen was a member of the parliamentary presidency group from 1985 to 1990.
Life after politics
Steen served as Norway’s ambassador to Chile, Peru and Ecuador from 1992 to 1996. His wife Inés Vargas, whom he married in 1981, was the Chilean deputy minister of justice under Salvador Allende. He was very open about his struggles with mental health issues including depression, and how it affected his political career. He was treated at the Blakstad psychiatric centre in 1997.
Steen was a great supporter of European integration. For a time he led Norway’s European Movement, and advocated joining the European Union and Economic Community. He protested against Norway’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan in 2007, and compared the then prime minister Stoltenberg to former US president George W Bush.
Steen is survived by Vargas and their four children. He published eight ideological and biographical books.