NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s King Harald V was celebrating his 80th birthday on Tuesday on a winter holiday with his closest family. Among his gifts is a new public opinion poll showing that the monarchy is now supported by an overwhelming 81 percent of the Norwegian population, with many also claiming that there is substance behind all the royal symbolism.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported over the weekend that its poll, conducted by statistics firm Norstat, indicated that only 15 percent of Norwegians would prefer, for example, a republic as opposed to Norway’s constitutional monarchy. Only 4 percent of the public was unsure about how Norway should be governed. Despite recent criticism over the royal finances, royal privilege and how some younger members of the royal family may overstep their bounds as they seek roles for themselves, the monarchy in Norway appears solid as a rock.
Of the 81 percent backing the monarchy, King Harald’s and his family’s strongest support was found in Northern Norway and in the southern county of Telemark. Even in Oslo, where support for the monarchy was lowest, fully 69 percent of those questioned still chose it over any other system of government. Support was even strongest among Norwegians aged 30 to 39, at 85 percent, an overwhelming number that led author and royal biographer Tor Bormann-Larsen to tell NRK that it bodes well for the future of the monarcy over the coming generations.
“It’s an expression of a wish for national stability in uneasy times,” Bomann-Larsen said, “and a king who forms our self-image.”
Unification vs polarization
At a time when many politicians are polarizing their countries, also in Norway by pitting factions and regions against one another, King Harald has sought to unify his nation during his 26-year reign. He has sought reconcialiation, for example, with Norway’s indigenous and often poorly treated Sami peoples and with communist Partisans in the far north who fought hard against Nazi German occupiers during World War II but were not recognized when other resistance forces were. Even his annual address to the nation on New Year’s Eve is aimed at bringing the country together, and especially offering comfort for those who are troubled and may feel overlooked.
Media commentators in Norway were also recalling on Tuesday how King Harald has been among the first to visit and console victims of natural disasters, like hurricane victims in 1992, and not least those of the home-grown and man-made tragedy of July 22, 2011, when a young white Norwegian man killed 77 people in attacks rooted in his anti-immigration attitude. “As a father, a grandfather and a spouse I can only feel some of your pain,” King Harald famously told survivors and victims’ families at the time. “As the country’s king, I feel with each and every one of you.”
A landmark speech
He’s also been there in times of great joy, whether it be the Olympics at Lillehamer, Norwegian skiers’ victorious sweep of the Nordic World Championships earlier in 2011 or various national celebrations. When he and Queen Sonja celebrated their silver jubilee last year, both expressed that they hoped Norway would continue to develop based on “mutual confidence, solidarity and generosity.” The spent weeks cruising down the long coastline of Norway, and battling some terrible weather along the way, to visit small towns and larger cities from Tromsø to Kristiansand. They met thousands of people along the way, just as they’ve welcomed thousands to the Royal Palace over the years.
It was the Norwegian king’s own speech, as the celebrations wound down, that grabbed the most attention, also internationally. That’s when King Harald, speaking in an informal tone, described Norway as a nation full of “girls who love girls, boys who love boys, and girls and boys who love each other.” He went on to note that Norwegians worship “both God, Allah, anything or nothing,” and that today’s Norwegians can originally come from Nordland and Trøndelag or Afghanistan, Pakistand and Poland.
The monarch’s message was clear: Norway is now a multi-gender, multi-cultural nation and tolerance is more important than ever.
King Harald has, perhaps, a unique set of baggage of his own that can make him a reformer in uncertain times. While he was born to privilege and title, he is also the first modern Norwegian monarch who actually was born in Norway, since his father and grandfather were born in Denmark and emigrated to Norway when the monarchy was reinstated in 1905. King Harald’s grandmother was British, the former Princess Maud of England who was married to Prince Carl of Denmark who became Norway’s King Haakon. She became Queen Maud of Norway, and continued to speak English.
Can draw on his own experience
King Harald also knows what it’s like to flee one’s homeland, when he, his mother and sisters fled first to Sweden and then to the US after Nazi Germany invaded Norway in 1940. They spent the war years in exile, and while their experience can’t be compared to that of today’s refugees, the king has some empathy and understanding for them, also regarding how difficult it was to return to Norway after spending his formative childhood years in another country and speaking lots of English. The contrast to a return to a war-torn Norway in 1945 was great. His childhood home at Skaugum had been ransacked by the Nazis, as had the Royal Palace.
And when he grew up, both he and his sisters rebelled against their father and grandfather in their choice of spouses. Princess Ragnhild was the first royal to marry a commoner, Princess Astrid was the first royal to marry a commoner who’d been divorced and then-Crown Prince Harald was the first heir-to-the-throne to marry a commoner as well. He held out nine years for the right to marry Sonja Haraldsen, the daughter of a retailing merchant in Oslo, and threatened to remain unmarried if King Olav wouldn’t allow the match. He finally did.
King Harald V thus has some credibility and experience in being an understanding and unifying force for Norwegians as politically elected governments come and go. He has no real political power and is supposed to refrain from expressing his political opinions, but he can help provide continuity when times are changing more rapidly than most find comfortable.
Commentator Harald Stanghelle claimed the Norwegian royals’ image as being “folksey,” though, not entirely correct and often misused. As royal they’re supposed to be on a higher and more exclusive platform. The monarch is head of state, the prime minister is merely its political leader. There’s symbolic power in what the king represents.
And now most agree there’s substance behind that symbolism as well. Prime Minister Erna Solberg spoke earlier this week of how important it is for her government and others before it to meet with the king and/or the crown prince as regent every Friday except during summer holidays for the ceremonial Council of State at the Royal Palace. She laughed about how other prime ministers in Europe have been amazed that Norway still hangs on to such tradition, with the monarch dressed in full gala uniform with a sword hanging by his side, and shaking the hand of every member of the government before they discuss current issues around his large table.
“‘Do you really still really do it that way’ I’ve been asked,” Solberg told newspaper Aftenposten, “and I respond, ‘yes, this is tradition. This is how Norway is governed.'”
Hanging on to such ritual, pomp and circumstance clearly is popular with Norwegians, as long as they also believe that King Harald cares about them, as did King Olav and King Haakon. Solberg wouldn’t disclose the conversation around the king’s table or in her own private regular meetings with the monarch, but she said both the king and crown prince follow Norwegian and international politics closely, “both because of our system of government and personal interest. We also talk about how it’s going, and completely other things.” She said the king’s “warmth, his quick, sometimes funny replies and his caring” make the sessions valuable.
‘Stable and secure’
“With the world changing so quickly right now, stabilizing factors take on extra important meaning,” Solberg told Aftenposten. “Other countries may think it’s strange that we have a throne that’s inherited. I think, though, that the monarchy gives us continuity and a security you don’t find in republics. In Norway we’re lucky to have a king and queen who have enormous symbolic power.”
It also depends, however, on who fills the role and how they carry out their duties, Solberg noted. “Our king and queen are so (relatively) close to the people, they see the people and they care about people who are struggling,” she said.
That’s also what probably prompted 81 percent of those questioned to express support for the monarchy, and for King Harald personally. On Tuesday he was celebrating privately with their family but in May there will be a public celebration of both him and Queen Sonja, who turns 80 in July. On Tuesday, though, it was to honour King Harald that flags were flying, the winter-berthed royal yacht was decorated with signal flags, a royal protocol was laid out at the palace for people to sign and the canons at Akershus Fortress would roar at noon. The sun even came out just before the canons flared.
“King Harald is the great reformer of our royal generation,” wrote commentator Stanghelle in Aftenposten. “He stands forward as a man who understands his own times.”