Prime ministers make new history

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Six of Norway’s prime ministers over the past 36 years are making history once again. Several were formerly bitter political foes, but now they share the experience of having run the country in good times and bad, and they’ve met over a friendly dinner to simply chat, reminisce and give each other both critical feedback and praise, all with state broadcaster NRK’s cameras rolling in the background.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) launched a new documentary series Sunday night featuring the six people alive today who have served as Norway’s prime minister. From left, as they shared a lengthy dinner at Akershus Fortress in Oslo: Kåre Willoch, Thorbjørn Jagland, Erna Solberg, Jens Stoltenberg, Kjell Magne Bondevik and Gro Harlem Brundtland. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The result is a new TV documentary series that began Sunday night and is due to run over the next several weeks. The series offers unique insight into what it’s been like to hold one of Norway’s most special jobs since Gro Harlem Brundtland became prime minister in 1981.

Its exclusive cast of characters ranges from the Labour Party’s now 78-year-old Brundtland and her immediate successor, the Conservatives’ now 89-year-old Kåre Willoch, to today’s 56-year-old Erna Solberg, also from the Conservatives.  Labour’s Thorbjorn Jagland (age 66) and Jens Stoltenberg (58), and Kjell Magne Bondevik of the Christian Democrats (age 70) held government power in between.

The only prime minister missing from the span of nearly four decades is the Conservatives’ Jan P Syse, who held the post for just over a year in 1989-1990 but died from a stroke in 1997 at the age of 66. Syse’s sudden death came just two days after the parliamentary election that year, in which he had opted not to run for re-election himself. Grieving colleagues at the time commented that Syse wasn’t allowed to enjoy retirement after a lifetime in national politics.

The series, entitled Da vi styrte landet (When we ran the country), premiered over the weekend and was already winning rave reviews, not least from political commentators. “I laughed and cried while I watched,” wrote newspaper Aftenposten’s political editor Trine Eilertsen. She described the series as “a program where we become better acquainted with each of them” while listening to them discuss each other’s life as prime minister. It’s a life, she claimed, that can’t be compared to any other in Norway.

The first episode of the new series on Norway’s prime ministers centered on the Labour Party’s Gro Harlem Brundtland. She first served briefly in 1981, after being appointed to succeed the now late Odvar Nordli, then again from 1986 to 1989, after Labour had toppled Kåre Willoch’s Conservative government. She took over yet again in November 1990, when another Conservative government led by Jan P Syse fell, and then she was finally re-elected in her own right in 1993 and served until 1996. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

In addition to allowing TV viewers to listen in on their surprisingly candid conversation around the table, the series profiles each individual prime minister with lots of flashbacks and film clips from the highs and lows of their time in office. The series started out Sunday by featuring Gro Harlem Brundtland and the special challenges she faced as the first woman to become prime minister in Norway. She and Willoch were political foes and Brundtland felt he belittled her at the time: “He was 11-12 years older than I was … he had enormous self-confidence … I didn’t have the training and experience he had and he was a traditional, polite, older man.” She admitted that “he managed to irritate me,” and she objected to him calling her “Fru Brundtland” in what she considered a derogatory tone. He had objections, too: “You keep calling me ‘Kåre Willoch,'” he noted in a jesting tone when the series premiered. “Can’t we agree to use our first names?”

Practical challeges
The six prime ministers met over dinner and wine in an elegant setting at Oslo’s appropriately historic Akershus Fortress and Castle, where each of them hosted plenty of state dinners over the years. Just getting them all together was an accomplishment itself, given their busy schedules complicated by the fact that Jagland now works in Strasbourg as secretary general of the Council of Europe, while Stoltenberg works in Brussels as secretary general of NATO. Solberg, meanwhile, needs to deal with the demands of running the country at present, making it tough for the show’s producers to coordinate calendars and pin down filming dates. NRK reported on Monday that several years elapsed from the time when program creators Tommy Gulliksen and Anne Marie Blindheim first came up with the idea until the series started running Sunday night.

“It didn’t take much for one of them to suddenly be unable to show up for filming,” Gulliksen said. “A flood, for example, would make the prime minister (Solberg) unavailable for a scheduled session.” He also disclosed that while taping a session with Stoltenberg, the NATO chief’s military adviser suddenly approached him and the two left the room. When they came back, Stoltenberg apologized and said “Uff, the Russian have set out some medium-distance rockets, that’s not good, you know…”

Personal challenges
Brundtland, educated as a medical doctor who went on to run the UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO) and has remained internationally active, conceded that making the series “took a lot of time,” but she was motivated by the idea of taking part in the program to share insight into the politics and work involved. “For once, I agree with you,” joked Willoch.

On a more serious and personal note, all agreed to discuss how the job affected, often adversely, their families and what private lives they had left as top politicians. Brundtland spoke about the trauma of her son Jørgen’s suicide in 1992, in the midst of her third and longest period in the job, from 1990 to 1996 after earlier abbreviated terms. It was hushed up at the time in Norwegian media to protect both Brundtland and her family in a time of personal crisis.

“I hadn’t understood what being prime minister meant for my (four) children,” Brundtland said in the series’ first episode. “I thought it was my duty to allow reporters into our home, to see how we lived.” She said she also often had a “bad conscience” that her political career allowed far too little time for her to be with her children, who in turn didn’t always tell her how they could be teased at school, while in the scouts or even later, when serving in the military. “They were blamed for things I did,” Brundtland said. Her advice to politicians now is to shield their children from the media as much as possible. “The children aren’t elected,” she reasoned, and should not be forced to become public figures just because their parents are.

Practical advice and admissions
Eilertsen of Aftenposten noted that the series is fascinating for its rundowns of recent Norwegian history during each prime minister’s term in office, and during a period of profound change and development in Norway. The best parts, though, is listening to the prime minister chat amongst themselves, like when Solberg relates how much Brundtland meant for her generation of politicians, when Brundtland confirms favouring patent leather shoes and permanent-press clothing to eliminate the need for polishing and ironing, and when Jagland apologizes for making an insensitive comment when Bondevik went on sick leave for a mild case of depression during his term as prime minister.

While Brundtland claimed that she also felt a “special responsibility” to clear the way for other women to become top politicians, Stolbenberg tempers that with some honest insight as well. He’s due to gently remind his older colleagues that top politicians seek power, and all the talk of “having influence” is a cover for that. The series continues next Sunday night with a focus on Bondevik’s two terms as prime minister in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That will be followed by segments over the next four weeks on Jagland, Willoch, Stoltenberg and Solberg.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund