It flared up again over a luxurious yacht holiday last summer and hasn’t died down since: Norway’s royal family has become the target of much tougher criticism over their inherited privileges and their roles in what’s supposed to be an open and democratic society. The debate over whether Norway should preserve its monarchy now involves new players, much bolder media commentary and increasingly harsh assessments of the royals from members of the general public.
While the yacht holiday raised questions of elitism and jet-set lifestyles among the younger generation of Norwegian royals, much of the criticism has stemmed from a recent string of complaints over what’s expected from both the royals and the public. Palace staff, for example, recently made it clear that they wanted children to be released from local schools and day care centers to wave flags and cheer when Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit paid recent visits to some small towns around Oslo. Parents complained, even on the national nightly news, that the flag-waving sessions were staged and obligatorisk, at the expense of classroom instruction.
There’s also been ongoing complaints over the palace’s lack of openness, not just over who paid for the controversial yacht holiday, but also over who sends designer shoes, clothing and accessories to Mette-Marit, or otherwise sponsor the royals in return for less than transparent product placement. Since Norwegian taxpayers fund the royals, with NOK 228 million this year alone, many feel they should know more about how the money is being spent, and about potential conflicts of interest. Norway’s national press federation has now asked the justice ministry to make the royals more accountable under the country’s public information laws. At present, the royals are generally above the law in Norway, but the public appears to be growing weary of the frequent “no comments” issued by palace staff when infractions occur and questions arise.
So brisk is the new monarchy debate that newspaper Aftenposten, once Norway’s most conservative reflection of the country’s establishment, actually printed a letter to the editor last week headlined “Four reasons to get rid of the monarchy.” They included the “confusion and lack of logic” behind having a monarchy in a country that otherwise promotes equal opportunity, an assertion that monarchy is in “direct opposition” to democracy, that current royal family members have “unfortunately” been “very messy” in combining their private and business interests with their public roles, and that marriage with commoners has diluted the royals’ “blue blood.” Writer Frode Korslund noted that young royal heir Princess Ingrid Alexander is only “a quarter royal,” since both her mother and grandmothers were commoners.
The letter was a reaction to a lengthy column published in Aftenposten a few days earlier by high-profile commentator Knut Olav Åmås, a former editor at the paper who went on to briefly serve as a state secretary in the Ministry of Culture and now runs Norway’s premier organization promoting freedom of expression, Fritt Ord (literally, Free Word). He had offered his own four reasons for retaining the monarchy, arguing that the royals do the representative jobs they’re assigned to do, that the monarchy has been modernized in recent years and that inherited power and inheritance itself is widespread within Norwegian society. Åmås also questioned whether shifting from a constitutional monarch as head of state to a republic with a president would make Norway more democratic.
Other more well-known monarchy debaters have included, in recent weeks, former justice minister and author Anne Holt, several politicians not known as being republicans and a variety of high-profile media commentators. Holt argued in newspaper Dagsavisen that the monarchy isn’t only an anachronism but a “gilded prison” from which members of the royal family should be set free. Newspaper Bergens Tidende has stated that inherited power and privilege aren’t in line with a modern democratic state.
The new and arguably more serious monarchy debate has blown up just months before King Harald and Queen Sonja will celebrate 25 years as regents, if not actually on any throne. Most royal trappings of power like crowns and scepters were abolished in Norway years ago, but the power of the royals themselves remains very real indeed. And that’s what’s behind much of the debate that has focused not so much on the king and queen as on their son and his wife.
Crown Prince Haakon’s photo has been splashed over newspaper front pages again in recent days, and no longer because of his family’s controversial yacht holiday, their high-powered and anonymous friends or last year’s uproar over Haakon’s and Mette-Marit’s decision to take their children out of Norwegian public schools and enroll their daughter, who may be queen someday, in an expensive international school where the working language is English, not Norwegian.
Instead Haakon’s photo on the front pages has had to do with rising criticism over one of the projects he allegedly took on to give himself a more meaningful role and modernize the monarchy. He brought “Global Dignity Day” to Norway, involving programs in the schools that are aimed at boosting the dignity of children and teenagers. Nine years after the crown prince’s program began, teachers, psychologists and youth themselves are speaking out against it, claiming that it collides with other more worthy programs.
Some might say the royals just can’t win, as they attempt to make their lives and public roles meaningful in a modern society where they’re not allowed to participate in political debate. Supporters claim that surveys have shown that a vast majority of Norwegians still want to retain the monarchy, for lack of a better alternative as a ceremonial head of state. Others suggest the surveys should ask not whether Norwegians want a monarchy or a republic, but whether positions of power should be inherited in Norway. And even Åmås, who gets a lot of media attention, has suggested that the royals should listen to the signals sent by the public over their lavish holidays and refusal to reveal the identities of their friends and hosts. They need to be more open, he wrote, about their priorities and money spent on their behalf, and “extremely careful about strong personal ties to political and business interests.”
Meanwhile, the elder royals go about their jobs. On a typical day last week, for example, King Harald had a regularly scheduled meeting with the foreign ministry’s chief of staff at 10am, and Queen Sonja joined in. At 11am the king received the new Norwegian consul general stationed in Minneapolis, the capital of the US’ large Norwegian-American population. Later in the day the king and queen held an “Afternoon Tea” for elderly civic activists, which the king’s sister, Princess Astrid, attended as well. On Tuesday, the king and queen were hosting a reception for members of 14 religious organizations for “a meeting of faiths and outlooks on life.”
And on January 17, when the couple will celebrate their silver anniversary as king and queen, a so-called folkefest (people’s party) will be held during the day and a special cultural performance during the evening, as a gift from the government. Prime Minister Erna Solberg told newspaper Aftenposten last week that the gift would “symbolize their lives as the royal couple by tying the people together with the royal family.” Solberg and other top politicians have generally stayed out of the debate over the monarchy.