13 November 2016

Nils Morten Udgaard:
Norway and 'civil society'

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The article was originally published on 20 May 1996 in Norwegian, under the title "Norge og det 'sivile samfunn' ", in the newspaper Aftenposten. Nils Morten Udgaard(1) was then Aftenposten's editor for foreign affairs.

References in the text to three items which are not usually well-known to foreign readers: the Lund Commission's Report, Arbeiderbladet, and Einar Gerhardsen, are explained below the article.

The article is translated and published here on 13 November 2016 with the author's generous consent. The translator, not the author, is responsible for any misrepresentation of the original text of the article, and is also responsible for translations of passages which the author has quoted from other sources.
Translation: Marianne Haslev Skånland
Consultant: Richard Holton Pierce
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What is most surprising in the Lund Commission's great Report(2) about the secret services is not that it reveals security agents who acted beyond their authority, but that it documents a complete failure of the Norwegian state's legal control mechanisms. The punishable activities which the police wish to place under surveillance are as a rule "far from concrete, and unspecified in detail", the Commission writes, pointing out that "in spite of this there is virtually no instance in which the decisions of the court contain any independent appraisals". The control carried out by Forhørsretten (the Court of examination and summary jurisdiction) has not functioned as the guarantor of legal security it was intended to be, says the Report. It points to examples – secret control of accounts in the banks – in which "this illegal practice has found support in the decisions of the Court of examination".

Much of what the Report refers to from earlier periods calls to mind Eastern Europe and the historian Jens Arup Seip's essay "Fra embedsmannsstat til ettpartistat" (From civil servant state to one-party state). In his opinion, the Labour Party "has a party machine unequalled in the West outside of the parties calling themselves communistic". That was in 1963. Last Saturday, Seip was echoed by chief editor of the newspaper Arbeiderbladet
(3), Steinar Hansson, who writes about the Lund Report and about "an epoch which was no golden age but a one-eyed and far too dogmatically conformist society; a system with simple and often authoritarian solutions which have been idyllised in many types of political debates in the years following". The image of Einar Gerhardsen's(4) Norway is showing cracks.

This is where we have something to learn from the experiences of the East Europeans. When their monolithic one-party states collapsed, the idea of "civilian society" flourished greatly: the need for strong and independent institutions independent of the power of the state, making society rich precisely because of its diversity – a check and counterweight against new concentration of power and intellectual regimentation. If we were to ask ourselves how strong this "civil society" really is in today's Norway, the answer would have to be that it is, after all, still rather weak – even if not as weak as before.

Low court profile

The courts in Norway, the judicial power, have chosen a low and somewhat passive profile in our society. The constitution mentions the courts only briefly; their task as controller of the other powers of the state has been less central with us than in several other countries. Norwegian courts are administered by the same Justice Department that is responsible for the prosecuting authority, for those who conduct cases before the courts on behalf of the state, and for every appointment to posts in the judicial system. The Supreme Court has not been actively engaged in the debate about the quality of administration of justice in Norway, beyond its own decisions.

Recently, judges themselves have begun to react. As late as in March this year, with the Lund Report being just around the corner, the Government appointed a committee with strong and well-established jurists – led by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Carsten Smith – to report on whether the independence of the courts is sufficiently attended to.

Another institution, almost equally important, which may probably be moving towards greater independence, is Norges Bank (Norway's Central Bank). It was the bank's traditional loyalty to power, to the government and a "passive" majority in Parliament, that led in 1986 to an interest policy that triggered a landslide of personal bankruptcies, broke the large Norwegian banks, and tipped them into the lap of the state – where they are still to be found. The financial power of the state has increased in Norway, quite contrary to the concepts of a "civil society".

According to Hermod Skånland, the governor of Norges Bank at the time, by not taking on an open conflict in 1986 about a higher interest rate in order to put a damper on the yuppie wave sooner, the bank got "the possibility of the gradual process which has over time given results" in the direction of greater independence. How great Norges Bank's independence really is, we don't know – it has not been tested again. We can only take note of the words of the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Paul A. Volcker, who wants greater independence, because it "secures a milieu in which expertise, continuity and integrity can be promoted".

Homogeneous intellectual world

The universities in Norway do not play the independent role we know especially from Britain and the USA. We have a school system with minimum pluralism – one secretary of state decides what a whole nation is to learn. One state church and, until recently, one tv monopoly governed by former secretaries of state have also contributed to producing a very homogeneous intellectual world in Norway: The ideas that in reality it is the state that should govern and that most areas of life in society ought to be put under political control – these are basic social-democratic attitudes which find wide acceptance in Norway. Moreover, there is a diffuse belief that we do not really need such strong barriers against abuse of power, because that is a greater problem for other countries than it is for us.

The Lund Commission's Report teaches us a different lesson: It tells us that a society which does not protect its own corrective mechanisms can become a danger – to itself.

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Informational reference to Nils Morten Udgaard may be found e.g. here:
Speakers CVs – Joint EFTA Parliamentary and Consultative Committees Conference
Minister of Culture and Church Affairs Valgerd Svarstad Haugland: Willy Brandt Prize 2003
Nils Morten Udgaard (in Norwegian)

The Lund Commission's Report

Arbeiderbladet was the main daily newspaper specifically associated with the Norwegian Labour Party. Like many other Norwegian papers, it is today no longer formally associated with any party, but is Labour oriented. Its name is now Dagsavisen.

Einar Gerhardsen was Norway's Labour Party prime minister for altogether 17 years over a 20 year period.