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Norway: A Realist's Utopia
A History of Norwegian Political Culture
The political history of Norway is one of relative extremes. Once the home to the most feared military force in Medieval Europe, Modern Norway is now one of the most peaceful, wealthy and stable countries in the world. The political stability and successes of Norway is a reflection of a Nordic political culture that stresses political and economic equality, a strong welfare state, and tradition. Norwegian political institutions have reflected these values with wide-ranging social welfare programs and a careful management of Norway’s rich natural resources. Twenty-first century Norway has become a bastion of economic equality and social welfare; this essay will trace the development of this peaceful and wealthy nation state.
With only 4.8 million people, the population of Norway is one of the least populous countries of Europe. Norway’s population is markedly homogeneous, 95% of its citizens are ethnically Norwegian – which undoubtedly plays a major role in the political stability of the country. Norway is linguistically homogeneous as well. The Norwegian language is divided into two dialects, Bokmål (“book language”) and Nynorsk (“New Norwegian”), and is the primary or secondary language of all Norwegian citizens. This homogeneity allows for a more unified political culture, and a strong sense of national political character. The Norwegian Parliament (“Storting”) is a unicameral body, in which its members are elected through a mix of direct election and proportional representation; it has been largely dominated by the Labour Party since 1935.
From War to Warm and Fuzzy
To understand the political history and traditions of Norway, one must first understand Norway in the larger historical context of its relationship with its Scandinavian neighbors. After its peak of political power in the High Middle Ages, Norway began its political decline in the late 14th century. From 1396 to 1814 - a period Henrik Ibsen called “the 400-year-night” – Norway was a part of “two unequal unions” with Denmark and Sweden. After the defeat of Denmark-Norway in the Napoleonic wars, Norway declared independence and established its Constitution in 1814. Sweden subsequently went to war with Norway, which resulted Norwegian defeat. Following peace negotiations, the Convention of Moss (1814) established a loose union between Sweden and Norway, a union peacefully dissolved in 1905, with Sweden recognizing Norwegian independence. In keeping with the Scandinavian tradition of constitutional monarchy, the Norwegian parliament (Storting) appointed Prince Charles of Denmark as the new Norwegian king, “and the prince on accepting the invitation to the throne adopted the Norwegian style of Haakon VII”.
Over the next four decades, the Norwegian welfare state slowly expanded and a policy of neutrality in foreign conflicts was adhered to. However, with the outbreak of World War Two, Norway’s neutral stance could not insulate it from conflict. In April 1940, German forces mounted a surprise attack on major Norwegian cities (e.g. Oslo) and ports (e.g. Bergen, Narvik). After two months of protracted resistance fighting, the Norwegians surrendered in June. Over the next five years, occupied Norway was governed by a Nazi puppet regime. Nazi occupation from 1940-1945 and post-war reconstruction efforts fostered an “enhanced feeling of national unity” among the Norwegian people, a development that is relevant to Norwegian politics today. The end of World War Two also led to an abandonment of Norwegian neutrality, symbolized by their role as a founding member of NATO in 1949. The shared hardships of the war years, and a rapid recovery of the post-war Norwegian economy, set the foundations for the social welfare policies of the post-war Labour Party.
The "Nordic Model"
One of the major underlying principles of Norwegian political culture is an emphasis on economic equality. While the current model for the Norwegian Welfare State is largely based on the “Nordic model” forged in the twentieth century, the Norwegian ethos of economic equality has deep roots in the country’s history. Unlike many other European nations, a strong feudalism never developed in Norway, and even with the economic inequities of the Industrial Revolution, the differences in standards of living were “much smaller than in most other European countries”. In the fourteenth century, a regional “legd” system was established, this system (which lasted until 1900) guaranteed work for the rural Norwegian poor. It is quite evident that economic equality is viewed as a tradition ingrained within the historical political culture of Norway – instead of a reaction against entrenched inequality.
The Social Assistance Act of 1900, which provided assistance to those unable to find work or support themselves, laid the foundation for the modern Norwegian welfare state. Social programs and assistance were further expanded in the1930s under the Labour government, but the current wide-ranging welfare state was firmly cemented by the National Social Insurance (NSI) act passed in 1967. The NSI established a socialized system of universal healthcare, old age and disability pensions, sick pay, and unemployment benefits. Currently, 33% of Norwegian GDP is spent on social welfare programs (the US spends 19% GDP respectively). These programs are funded through a progressive tax system, in which taxation accounts for 40% of Norwegian GDP, and oil revenue.
A sense of obligation to assist the poor, old, and sick is deeply ingrained within Norwegian political culture. This obligation is tied to the aforementioned traditional concerns for economic equality, but is ultimately made possible by the wealth derived from Norway’s natural resources. Since the 1970s, the discovery and extraction of large amounts of oil and gas reserves in the adjacent North Sea have allowed Norway to become one of the wealthiest nations in the world (as of 2006, it had the second-highest per capita income). Oil and gas account for half of Norway’s exports, and 30% of its GDP, this is especially significant considering that Norway is ranked fourth in the world for oil exports (ahead of Iran, UAE, and Kuwait). Norway has used its petroleum revenue to fund social welfare programs for its population.
The most symbolic of these programs is the “Government Pension Fund”, which was established because of a slow decline in Norwegian oil production. In keeping with the Norwegian ethos of economic equality through long-term planning, the fund was established to maintain social programs for posterity; and as of 2006, the fund had the equivalent 36,000 Euro for every Norwegian citizen (NOK 1456 billion in total). While many oil-rich countries have suffered an “oil curse” in which revenues are siphoned into the bank accounts of a wealthy elite or multi-national corporation, Norwegian governments have used its revenues to maintain and ensure the well-being of the Norwegian people.
Derived from the Scandinavian tradition of economic equality, the ultimate symbol of the political culture of Modern Norway is found in its strong, well-funded welfare state. Aside from this deep-rooted tradition, the development of a homogeneous political culture can be tied to the demographic makeup of the country, but also the Norwegian solidarity forged under Nazi occupation in World War Two. Norway’s current welfare state established in the decades following the war has derived its strength from the Norwegian ethos of economic equality, and has derived its funding from a careful management of Norway’s natural resources. The combination of these factors has allowed for the emergence of a wealthy, stable, and peaceful Norway.
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