A postcard from Norway’s political festival

Arendalsuka’s opening ceremony

Outside the cinema, across from the bowling alley, Norway’s political elites are mingling. The foreign minister is interviewed by children from a school radio show. The leader of the Centre party, one of the nine political parties to have at least one seat in parliament, pulls up in his battered Volvo and chats to an MP. The prime minister is hanging about somewhere, too. This is Arendalsuka, Norway’s annual festival for political geeks. Davos it is not.

I was in Norway to report on a story about mental health, but a friend recommended that I arrive a couple of days early to visit the festival. Based on a similar Swedish event, Arendalsuka has since its founding in 2012 grown to 70,000 visitors from across the Norwegian political scene. It proved to be an immersive course in what makes Norwegian politics unique, one that is timely ahead of Norway’s general election on September 11.

Norway appears to have passed the political equivalent of Walter Mischel’s “marshmallow test”, the famous experiment in delayed gratification. As a Scot I’ve often wondered what might have been if the British government had saved the proceeds from North Sea energy. In 1990 Norway set up the the Government Petroleum Fund. Since 1998 it has invested in equities. The fund owns about 1% of every publicly-listed company in the world, and more than 2% of Europe’s listed companies. The fund’s value ($900bn and growing) equates to roughly $170,000 per Norwegian alive today.

According to a self-imposed rule, the government can spend up to 3% of the fund. Since the proceeds typically outstrip that spending, the overall value of the fund ticks ever closer to $1tn. Yet the rule still leaves enough so that one in every six kroner the state spends comes from the oil fund, according to estimates by Civitas, an Oslo-based think-tank.

These revenues from the oil fund help to underwrite one of the world’s most generous welfare states. Health-care costs are capped at the equivalent of a few hundred dollars per year. Education is free, including university. The hours worked per employee per year is the fourth lowest among the 36 countries in the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, in part because of extensive financial help for parents to be able to balance work and children.

At first glance, therefore, there seems little for Norwegians to complain about. And discussions of politics at Arendalsuka do feel somewhat sedate. “The first thing you need to know about Norwegian politics”, says Harald Stanghelle, a former newspaper editor, “is that we agree about a lot of things”. On the evening I arrive I sit next to Mr Stanghelle at a televised debate featuring the leaders from the nine parties. The candidates spend a lot of time laughing with each other and when one says something at least four others nod along.

Left: the view from my seat at the televised debate. Right: Harald Stanghelle, a journalist, trying to watch the debate despite your pestering correspondent

“We are all social democrats”, saya Sturla Henriksen, the chief executive of the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association, an industry body. Kristin Clemet, the director of Civitas, and a former education minister, prefers “social liberals”, but agrees that the spectrum of Norwegian debate is narrower and takes place further to the left than other countries, not only the likes of America and Britain but also Denmark, Germany and Sweden.

I asked attendees at Arendalsuka to explain why. Some pointed to Norway’s levels of trust. According to the World Values Survey, an international poll, 74% of Norwegians agree with the statement “most people can be trusted” — a higher share than in any other country. (By contrast 42% of Germans, 38% of Americans, 30% of Britons and just 7% of Brazilians agree with the statement.) Some added historical explanations: the lack of proper feudal system, for example, or a common Protestantism. More recent reasons include a (mostly) shared resistance to Nazism and occupation.

Some of the talk of a harmonious, egalitarian Norway is overblown. Income inequality has historically been higher than in America. Norway has gone through bitter debates about the role of the state. Kåre Willoch, Conservative prime minister from 1981 to 1986, deregulated Norway’s media, credit, property and retail markets, sparking outrage at the time on the left. But the Labour party under Gro Harlem Brundtland, thrice prime minister in the 1980s and 1990s, did not reverse the changes. Since then there has been broad agreement about the size of the state, partly because there has been plenty of oil money to soothe potential losers from any change. “Norway is a lotto country”, notes Mr Stanghelle.

Earlier in the day I took a stroll along the harbour in Arendal, the town that lends its name to the festival. I noticed a small crowd at Blom, a restaurant with a decidedly non-Scandinavian approach to interior design (see below). I almost fail to spot Erna Solberg, Norway’s prime minister, who is giving a PowerPoint presentation to diners and journalists who seem more interested in the buffet laden with salmon and waffles. She is explaining her economic manifesto — and the prime minster has brought charts to prove it.

Erna Solberg, Norway’s prime minster, and Blom’s natty wallpaper

Ms Solberg turns to a slide on the jobs record of different ethnic groups. As of January, 14% of Norway’s 5.2m population were born outside of the country, and a further 3% were born in Norway to parents born abroad. (In Oslo one in three residents is in one of these groups.) Most came to Norway to work or join family, especially those from the largest source-countries: Poland, Lithuania and Sweden. But 23% of migrants are refugees, according to the national statistics agency. These include Bosnians, Iraqis and Somalis who came in the 1990s, and, more recently, Afghans and Syrians.

The unemployment rate for migrants is 7.1% versus 2.3% for non-migrants. But some migrants — and their children — do much better than others when it comes to education and work. Almost 60% of women and 42% of men aged 19–24 whose parents are from Bosnia were in higher education in autumn 2015, versus overall shares of 42% and 28%. Iraqis and Somalis, particularly women, tend to have lower employment rates than the average.

I ask Ms Soldberg (in English) whether Norway’s diversity makes it harder to maintain support for its welfare state, as some commentators suggest. “No” she replies (in English). “Having a welfare state that is accessible to everybody is part of what makes Norway Norway”, she says. “We are mutually dependent on each other.” Later, at a rally, she reiterates the message. Her campaign video is a montage of a multi-ethnic Norway, with the slogan (translated): “We believe in Norway because we believe in you”.

Most Norwegians believe that migrants enrich their society, according to an annual survey of attitudes to immigration carried out by the government. Among the questions asked is whether you agree or disagree that “Most immigrants make a useful contribution to Norwegian working life”. Two-thirds agree; less than a fifth-disagree and the rest don’t know. The results of these surveys have been broadly similar over the past decade or so.

Yet not everyone is comfortable. After the number of refugees entering Norway, including over the Russian border, spiked in 2015, the government built a border fence in the north, and placed tighter restrictions on who could seek asylum. (Nevertheless it has agreed to take refugees as part of the EU’s quota scheme, which as a non-EU member it is not obliged to do.)

Norwegians who want to restrict immigration disproportionately vote for the Progress party, the junior coalition partner in Ms Solberg’s government. Progress makes for an idiosyncratic populist party. Founded in 1973, its policies have been a mix of economically liberal (at least by Norwegian standards) and nationalistic. Recently the latter has been preeminent.

“We are the strictest party on immigration”, says Åshild Haugland, a Progress MP. She complains that migrants come because of the welfare state: “We pay people not to work”. But she is particularly worried about Muslim migrants. She complains that a girl at her friend’s daughter’s school wears a hijab and that some schools in Oslo have trialled separate swimming classes for boys and girls, in an apparent appeasement of Muslim parents. (Aquatic activities are something of a theme; another politician complained to me that communal naked showering at school is under threat from Islamic parents.)

Ms Haugland insists Progress is unlike other populist outfits in Europe. Front National, for example, is “more anti-immigrant and more left-wing”. Perhaps. But unlike some of its peers it does have to compete for votes with another populist outfit, says Ms Clemet. And the Centre party tends to complain more about Oslo and Brussels than outsiders. It opposes the centralisation of public services that Norway has pursued over the past two decades, as well as closer ties with Europe. “The salmon and the oil is not made in Oslo”, Marit Arnstad, the head of its parliamentary group, tells me.

But the influence of Progress’s rhetoric can be seen at the televised debate. A segment on “Norwegian values” is largely platitudinous: the candidates talk about democracy and free speech and tolerance and other values that are not exclusively Norwegian. But the fact they are having the debate at all strikes this foreigner as more important than what it contains. I also suspect that the discussion would have been more heated if Norway’s finances were in worse shape, and if resources for public services were scarcer.

Nonsense on stilts? Erna Solberg, Norway’s prime minister and Jonas Gahr Støre, leader of the Labour party (approx.)

Few people at Arendalsuka were confident in predicting who would win the election. Labour will most likely win the most votes, even if it has slumped in the polls since January, with its support seemingly turning to the Centre party. Yet whether Labour leader, Jonas Gahr Støre, replaces Ms Solberg as prime minister depends on whether he could piece together a coalition.

And that is where Norway’s bewildering effort at making every vote count makes the result hard to predict. Most seats are decided by proportional representation within the country’s 19 counties. But smaller parties who gain at least 4% nationally can also win seats through a system called utjamningsmandat, or levelling. If, for example, the Liberal party, a small centre-right party which supports the government in most votes, wins 4%, then Ms Solberg may hold on. The last poll had the party at exactly 4%.

Nevertheless few at Arendalsuka seemed too worried about the result. The differences between the two blocs are small. Labour would put up taxes very slightly to pay for things like elderly care, and other left of centre parties are a bit more sceptical about private provision of public services. But none of the big parties are proposing any major reforms to the state or to immigration policy. The self-styled libertarians at the Progress party seem to want to spend more of the oil money, by breaking the self-imposed 3% rule.

Yet back at the harbour, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, the education minister, wonders if “this is the last election in the state of bliss we are in”. Oil will remain Norway’s biggest industry for the forseeable future. But after “two golden decades”, Mr Røe Isaksen reckons in four years’ time the debate may be different: a more robust discussion about what happens as the growth of the fund slows, and how to make the welfare state more efficient. Until then, however, the Norwegian consensus looks set to blissfully endure.

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