Norway hails man who modernized it

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Kåre Willoch was being called both a “unique national phenomenon” and “the father of the modern Norway” when he turned 90 on Wednesday. His time as a Conservative prime minister in the early 1980s fundamentally changed the country, through a mix of deregulation and recognition of individual freedoms, and even now, he’s fighting against a looming threat of reversal under opposition politicians keen on seizing government power.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg was among those hailing Kåre Willoch over the weekend, as family, friends and colleagues from a long life in Norwegian politics gathered to celebrate Willoch’s 90th birthday. At left is Willoch’s wife, Anne Marie. Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide can be glimpsed in the background. PHOTO: Høyre/Cecilie Victoria Jensen

“Kåre Willoch mirrors the times he was part of creating,” wrote political commentator Harald Stanghelle in an analysis published in newspaper Aftenposten that summed up Willoch’s significance and contributions over the years. Willoch did not view programs to ease rules and regulations as being a threat to the welfare state but rather a means of enhancing it. It’s difficult for today’s youth to visualize the Oslo that existed when all stores were closed in the evenings, when there were no sushi or Thai restaurants, when it took months to get a phone line installed at home and the price of food and most all other items was relatively even higher than today. After Willoch’s time as prime minister, from 1981 to 1986, Oslo and Norway itself became a more open society with more choices and less strict regulation. The so-called “nanny state” was eased considerably.

Willoch’s “official” birthday party was held on Sunday, and he was quick to use the occasion to express, in his typically understated manner, his disappointment over the Christian Democrats’ leader’s proposal to switch sides, topple Norway’s current Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg and try to form a new left-center government with the Labour and Center parties. It was Willoch, after all, who in many ways liberated Norwegians from decades of the strict regulations and protectionist policies of Labour and Center regarding everything from store opening hours to the real estate market. The Christian Democrats also adhered to some strict regulation, with some joining Center in even opposing the advent of colour TV, but they were generally at odds with the left side of Norwegian politics.

“I have always felt, and I think many Christian Democrats have felt, that they are ideologically a non-socialist party,” Willoch told reporters during his party at the Conservatives’ headquarters in downtown Oslo. “We have so much cooperation behind us that it’s natural to continue with it. So this proposal (announced by the Christian Democrats’ leader Knut Arild Hareide late last week) that they should switch sides and end the tradition of cooperation is very disappointing.”

As in previous years, Kåre Willoch addressed the Conservative Party’s annual national meeting last spring, and sounded off on topics of the day. He especially urged creating more friendship and cooperation with other countries, especially non-Western powers, while also calling for more aid to poor families with small children. PHOTO: Høyre

His views are not entirely aimed at keeping Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative coalition government in office. Since retiring after  32 years in the Parliament in 1989, Willoch has been widely viewed as becoming more leftist himself. He has both aggravated and inspired his own Conservative Party with new views on topics ranging from waterfront redevelopment in Oslo (he thinks it should include more open space and parks) to statements that the Palestinians are victims of injustice. Most recently, Willoch has warned Solberg and her government about the long-term consequences of Norway’s decision to join western allies in imposing economic sanctions against Russia.

Willoch simply wants Norway to keep looking and moving forward, and repelling the nationalism that’s suddenly risen both at home and abroad. In his remarks at his birthday party, he strongly urged Norway to hang on to its “own friends” and international cooperation “instead of letting this (US President Donald) Trump build up hostility that will evolve into great misfortune!”

‘Unexpected one-man show’
Stanghelle noted how the late author and Conservative politician Lars Roar Langslet once claimed that Willoch has carried on “the most unexpected one-man-show in Norwegian history,” by never failing to speak his mind and share his wisdom on a wide range of issues. He’s had some equally unexpected support along the way: Former Labour Party leader Thorbjørn Jagland, as Stanghelle also noted, has admitted that Labour, in its zeal to promote the collective good, had failed to recognize individuals’ needs to develop themselves. It wasn’t the welfare state Willoch’s government challenged but rather an authoritative and rigid state. Jagland also gave Willoch an enormous compliment, Stanghelle wrote, by noting that the Labour government that followed Willoch’s in 1986 and again in the early 1990s carried on “with certain modifications, everything the Willoch government had set up (or dismantled, as the case may be) … and that’s what saved the social democratic order.”

Willoch didn’t simply receive accolades at Sunday’s party or in the days since. Kjell Magne Bondevik, a former leader of the Christian Democrats who managed to serve as prime minister in a coalition with the Conservatives even though the Conservatives were much bigger, gave Willoch a copy of Hareide’s new book that details his new admiration for the left side of Norwegian politics. Bondevik has said he agrees with Hareide, and clearly thinks the time for their party’s cooperation with the non-socialists is over. Bondevik was in turn criticized for having acted disrespectfully towards Willoch. Bondevik later insisted that he meant no offense. The guest of honour had no immediate comment.

Advantages of wearing a tie
Debate also has of course flown over Willoch’s years in government, when he shared power himself with both the Center Party and the Christian Democrats when both were still centrist and not leaning to the left. Stanghelle noted how Berge Furre, a history professor and member of the Socialist Left party (SV), believes the social democratic order that promoted fellowship wilted under the pressure from the Conservatives’ individualism and commercialism. Others reject that, claiming that Willoch’s “historic” contribution “repaired” Norwegian politics.

Willoch himself attributes his good health to his habit of always wearing a tie, telling Aftenposten that it acts as “an excellent scarf and I never catch a cold.” His engagement in social and political issues just comes naturally, and he seems glad others still want to listen to him. Stanghelle maintains that Norwegians still have “enormous” use for Willoch’s “wise voice.”

It pervades his new book, a collection of “political conversations” with current government minister Thorbjørn Røe Isaksen, who’s widely viewed as the Conservativess current ideologist. The book was timed for release in connection with Willoch’s 90th birthday, and will likely help preserve his thoughts for years to come. Berglund