Parting shots from Labour's patriarch

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A new biography of the legendary Labour Party secretary Haakon Lie confirms his position as a man who didn’t mince words. Lie, who died last spring at the age of 103, called former party boss Thorbjørn Jagland a “catastrophe” as prime minister, former trade unions boss Yngve Hågensen “just plain stupid” and made it clear that longtime Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen was a sworn enemy.

Lie remained an unusually powerful force within his party for decades after his official retirement. Labour Party officials continued to pay homage to the party veteran, often consulting him and fearing the consequences if they didn’t. It’s been reported that he had a hand in ensuring that Raymond Johansen took over this year as party secretary, and Jens Stoltenberg likely wouldn’t be prime minister today without Haakon Lie’s blessing.

Stoltenberg won Lie’s favour early, according to a new biography of Lie by author Hans Olav Lahlum, although Lie didn’t like the privatization moves Stoltenberg made after winning government power. Jagland wasn’t so fortunate. Not only did Lie consider Jagland’s short period as prime minister in the late 1990s a “catastrophe,” he wrote in a letter made available to Lahlum that “the worst (was) that he (Jagland) didn’t understand that himself.” Lie was a bit more charitable regarding Jagland’s term as president of Norway’s Parliament. He now is head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and recently was elected secretary general of the Council of Europe.

The new biography, released this week, has won good reviews in Norwegian media, with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) calling it “monumental, like the subject of it himself.” Contrary to Lie, though, DN wrote that the book is characterized “by balance, nuances and respect for others’ opinions.”

Newspaper Aftenposten wrote that “it’s nearly impossible to comprehend the life that Hans Olav Lahlum has managed to fit within the book’s cover.” Not only was Haakon Lie born the same year that Norway became its own sovereign nation, he was politically active for 90 years and played a huge role in the development of the Labour Party. Lie’s life is seen as a reflection of Norway’s modern history.

Put in perspective, Lie was already politically active before the Soviet Union was established, and remained active for nearly two decades after it fell apart. He was uncompromising, and his fight against communism could make him both “hysterical” and disloyal against fellow Labour leaders. His temper tantrums and grudges were legendary, and he was criticized for organizing surveillance of opponents, not least suspected communists.

That often overshadowed his talent as a reformer, who seized early on the changing role of women in society, and who helped create institutions to boost emerging issues like consumer rights and functions like foreign aid. The former resistance fighter during World War II is widely viewed as one of the chief architects of the Norwegian welfare state.

Lahlum was granted access to Lie’s private archives, and met with Lie weekly for long conversations. He doesn’t merely present Lie’s version of events, though. Reviewers claim he managed to “disrobe the myth, and sculpt the person.”