Tributes to the man who liberalized, modernized and changed Norway forever kept pouring in on Tuesday, after news that Kåre Willoch had died at an age of 93. The former prime minister in the 1980s was being hailed as everything from Norway’s most important Conservative politican in the post-war years to the country’s “wise grandfather.”
Willoch, who died at his home at Ullern in Oslo on Monday, remained active and interested in public affairs well after leaving Parliament in 1989 and retiring as county governor of Oslo and Akershus in 1998. He spoke once again at the Conservative Party’s annual meeting just last year, followed both local developments in Oslo, national issues in Norway and international affairs with insight and engagement, and didn’t hesitate to comment or simply put things in perspective. He wasn’t seen as breathing down the necks of his political successors, but also was known for sending messages to them offering, for example, critiques of their performance in political debate.
“Kåre Willoch is one of the post-war years’ greatest politicians,” stated the Conservatives Party leader Erna Solberg in the party’s announcement of his death. “He put his mark on the Conservatives and all of Norway from the 1960s all the way to the end. We all have a lot to thank Kåre Willoch for, and his death is a great loss for Norway.”
Entered Parliament in 1957
Willoch, who grew up in an affluent family on Oslo’s west side, spent his early teenage years in exile in Uppsala, Sweden during World War II. His family wasn’t reunited in Oslo until well after the liberation celebrations had subsided, but then he was able to finish high school, enter university and study social economics. He started out working for the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association and then a national industrial federation before being elected as a Conservative member of the Oslo City Council and, in 1957, as the youngest Member of Parliament at an age of 29.
Willoch was already balding, though, and arguably always looked older than he really was. That may have boosted his authority even as a young man, who could also be disarming with his sense of humour while respected by political supporters and opponents alike.
“There is no doubt that he was the most central, imposing and impressive Conservative politician after the war,” Einar Lie, a professor in modern politics and economic history at the University of Oslo, told state broadcaster NRK. Lie is writing a biography of Willoch, in which he’s likely to get credit for the Conservative Party (Høyre)’s strong growth in the late 1970s and 1980s.
It all led to victory in the 1981 national election that left Norway with a pure Conservative government after decades of Labour Party domination and a few coalition governments that didn’t last long. The Conservatives were finally in charge, at a time when Margaret Thatcher held power in the UK and the Republican’s Ronald Reagan was president in the US. Willoch was a much more liberal version of either of them, but clearly benefited from more right-leaning voter sentiment at the time.
That in turn set off an unprecedented period of reforms, championed by Willoch, that modernized and opened up a country that was strictly regulated both socially and economically. State- or local governments still had monopoly control over many industries, stores had to close for the day in late afternoon, everything was closed on Sundays, and restaurants were few and very expensive. Housing was also strictly regulated, and there was little room for innovation or entrepreneurs. Oslo had a reputation as one of the most boring and expensive capitals in Europe, even as oil wealth finally began to trickled down into society.
Willoch’s government ushered in sweeping changes like allowing stores to stay open later into the evening and Saturday afternoons, some even on Sundays. NRK began to lose its dominance as the sole broadcaster that offered only limited programming and signed off around or shortly after midnight by playing the national anthem. A few commercial stations started popping up and liberalization paved the way for cable TV and presentation of international networks like CNN. New, less formal restaurants also began opening, along with bars where guests no longer had to also buy food in order to get a drink. Menus also began to feature more exotic food, although sushi bars and Thai food weren’t widely introduced until the 1990s.
Under Willoch’s leadership the proverbial toothpaste was nonetheless pressed out of the tube and there was no way back from his formidable and popular deregulation of Norwegian society. Young Norwegians latched on to what had already become the “Yuppie” (Young Urban Professional) trend elsewhere, also with far more highly educated women entering the workforce. No one needed to worry anymore about running out to the grocery store before it closed at 4pm. Norwegians simply gained much more personal freedom.
Willoch himself wasn’t the bragging type, often noting how Labour “had held a domineering positoin of power” for so long that “reaching the top for us young conservatives after the war seemed quite distant.” It took a long time, despite some short-lived conservative coalitions with the Center- and Christian Democrats parties, but made an enormous impact in the 1980s. Professor Lie is among those noting that so much of what Norwegians take for granted today was rooted in Willoch’s reforms that shaped today’s Norway.
Willoch and Labour’s Gro Harlem Brundtland became arch rivals, with her brief, first and famously female government losing to Willoch in 1981, regaining power briefly when Willoch’s fell over a fuel tax debate in 1986 but losing again to the Willoch’s Conservatives successor Jan Per Syse in 1989. Then Willoch was appointed as county governor of Oslo and Akershus, a post he held until he reached mandatory retirement age in 1998.
He remained highly engaged, both socially and politically, however, and “was always still there,” recalled Conservative politician Torbjørn Røe Isaksen on Tuesday. He was the one likening Willoch to the “country’s wise grandfather” on national radio, while even Brundtland (who once called Willoch “arrogant” and “condescending”) was referring to Willoch as a distinguished “gentleman.”
Many claimed Willoch became less conservative as the years rolled on, becoming much more outspoken about the threat of climate change and the plight of the Palestinians, for example, when most conservatives were still fully backing Israel. He even came out in favour of more open space and parks along Oslo’s waterfront, and against even more expensive residential and commercial developments.
Former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of the Labour Party called Willoch “a fearsome opponent” who was “knowledgable, hard-working and a respected leader.” Stoltenberg, now secretary general of NATO, recalling his “surgical debate style,” his habit of always being well-prepared and how he remained “a relevant participant in the political debate.”
Also among those paying tribute to Willoch was Crown Prince Haakon, who said he grew up watching Willoch and Brundtland arguing and debating issues on TV. “He was an important politician but also a statesman,” Crown Prince Haakon, currently on an official trip to the US, told NRK. He added that it was “exciting to follow his engagement also after he left politics.” Willoch was “an important voice in society,” said the crown prince who, by law, needs to remain non-partisan. “We will miss him.”
Norway’s current Labour-Center led government announced that Willoch will be honoured with a state funeral at government expense: “Kåre Willoch put his mark on Norway as a Member of Parliament, an Industry and Trade Minister, Prime Minister and County Governor, and for several decades afterwards,” stated Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre. Willoch, who suffered a stroke two years ago and had battled cancer, is survived by his wife Anne-Marie, grown children and grandchildren.