Blog: Norwegian democracy: Stoltenberg, Bertelsmann

By: Chris Game

One can only speculate about the words other recent Prime Ministers or their spin doctors might have come up with, faced by the tragic events in Oslo on July 22 2011. Those, however, that seemed to come instinctively and personally to Norway’s PM, Jens Stoltenberg, within hours of having himself been the main target of the initial car bomb, were as remarkable as they were memorable: ‘We will retaliate with more democracy’.

No British PM, surely, would have dared, even if the sentiment had occurred to them. Democracy is just not something about which Britain is expected nowadays to have anything very valid, let alone inspirational, to say. Check out, for example, the lowly positions we occupy in international league tables measuring almost any aspect of the subject – from public participation and integrity of the electoral system to civil liberties and access to information. 

On the University of Zurich’s recently developed Democracy Barometer, which compares the democratic records of 30 industrialised nations between 1995 and 2005, GB is 26th with a score of 44.6 - just ahead of France, but behind, inter multa alia, the US, Slovenia, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Hungary and the Czech Republic. All the Scandinavians, including Iceland, have scores of over 82.

For a more current picture there is the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2010 Democracy Index. Here, the UK’s overall 8.18 (out of 10) puts us 19th out of 26 nations designated ‘full democracies’, with a political participation score (6.11) comfortably exceeded by the supposedly ‘flawed democracies’ of Israel, South Africa, Slovenia and Greece. Nine countries managed an overall score of at least 9, but heading the Index, comfortably, with an overall 9.8 and three improbably perfect 10s for Electoral Process and Pluralism, Political Participation, and Civil Liberties, is Norway. Commendable, obviously, but in the present context it does present a problem: if you’re starting from 9.8 out of 10, there really isn’t room for that much more democracy.

We need to turn therefore to other indices – ones that look more comprehensively at a country’s performance, and are less susceptible to what, to us academics, smacks a little of grade inflation. Fortuitously, the latest edition of the best of these – Bertelsmann’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGIs) – was published this very month (July 2011). The Bertelsmann Stiftung is a German, not-for-profit foundation that funds and publishes research into a wide range of governmental and public policy topics.  In 2003, it published the first Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI): a comparison and ranking of measures of political management performance in over 100 countries seeking to make the transition to market-based democracies. The most recent (2010) edition of the Index now covers 128 countries.

SGIsevolved naturally out of the BTI. Using a similar approach, SGIs measure and compare the capacities of developed countries – the OECD member states – to implement the political, economic and managerial reforms necessary to ensure their future viability as democratic market economies.  Like the BTI, SGIs are actually combined into two separate indices. A Status Index measures four ‘quality of democracy’ criteria of a country and its competencies in policy fields deemed relevant for future viability, while a Management Index assesses its government’s organisational capacity and executive accountability.

Britain’s 2011 overall SGI ranking, as in 2009, is 15th out of 31, but unfortunately, on the Quality of Democracy measure that most concerns us here, government-less Belgium’s superior score pushed us down to 16th.  Norway had the reverse experience: second to Sweden overall, but again indisputably top of the pile on Democracy

It seems unlikely, then, that Mr Stoltenberg was suggesting Norway might have major lessons on democracy to learn from the institutions and practices of its European neighbours. No, the fact is that on these matters Norwegians have been their own severest critics, and it seems much likelier that the PM’s call for ‘more democracy’ was, consciously or sub-consciously, a reminder to the nation that self-criticism, however perceptive, has real value only if it is acted upon

At which point we need to go back eight years, to the summer of 2003, as two classic examples of that very Scandinavian phenomenon – the large-scale, publicly funded, academically conducted ‘Power and Democracy’ study – were formulating their respective conclusions.  Denmark’s study was commissioned by its national Parliament out of a serious concern that the country’s democratic system (and its own influence) was disintegrating, through, among other things, interna­tionalisation, decentralisation, and the growing power of large State-run corporations. However, the study’s verdict was, in the authors’ own words, ‘rather positive. The Danes are still democratically active, and political institutions are democratically robust.’ Denmark was not without its democratic problems, but these had not, as the parliamentary instigators had suspected, resulted in a systemic weakening of the parliamentary chain of governance. (   

Norway’s study, by contrast, was commissioned with at least one eye on the country’s approaching 2005 Centenary of Independence, and, as a critic put it, ‘bore the imprint of the Crown’. Its mandate was much less apprehensive than the Danish one, but its findings much more so. Almost exactly what was feared by the Danish legislators was found by the Norwegian researchers and bleakly interpreted. To quote the official English summary of the majority report: ‘representative democracy is in decline. The country’s democratic infrastructure is in collapse’.

Voter participation in both central and local elections was falling, the study found, as was membership of political parties, which no longer served as channels for broad-based, long-term mobilisation, but had been transformed into parties based on networks.  Citizens were rejecting conventional political participation for various forms of direct action and ‘here-and-now organisations’ – often small, non-membership, single-issue action groups. The national legislature was losing its decision-making power to other institutions: the market, through the globalisation of trade and industry; the media; and, particularly in relation to European institutions, supra-national law.

Clearly, it was an analysis much of which might be equally applied to the UK – apart from the impact of oil wealth. Norway had become a petroleum state with extensive ownership interests in the commercial sector and substantial allocation to reserves – providing between them the new foundation for a wide-ranging supply policy to the population, while the original foundation for redistribution and common national measures – broad-based, popular mobilisation – deteriorated.

But, readers of this blog will doubtless be asking at this point, what about local democracy and Norway’s historically autonomous local self-government that people like me are wont to compare so favourably with our own?  What about the 430 municipalities, most with populations of under 10,000, yet with identities and cultures unadulterated by mergers into ever-larger artificial areas with artificial names? What about their comprehensive responsibilities for local infrastructure and services, financed by local income taxes that they themselves set and collect?  What about those ‘declining’ municipal election turnouts of 62% (2007) that we can barely match in a General Election year?

Good questions. Most of the Norwegian researchers’ conclusions were pretty downbeat, but the one strand of the collapsing democratic infrastructure that earned the description ‘crisis’ was local democracy. Local government, they argued, had lost much of its autonomy through a combination of rights-based legislation, central government directives, and budgetary restrictions. Local taxation had become a virtual power, with most municipalities taxing at the top of their nominal range of discretion and increasingly reliant on central funding. They were left with authority over purely local matters and the administrative responsibility for implementing government policy; they were demoralised and voters apathetic.

Obviously, this ludicrously summary account is an insult to two of the most wide-ranging and carefully argued studies of their type ever conducted, but it is not a complete misrepresentation. There was, understandably, much debate about how simultaneous studies of two such similar countries could produce such divergent conclusions. It appeared, though, that in Norway there was much less debate and certainly little concrete action about the strident message that the country’s representative democracy was in need of reform – in fact, in quite urgent need of extensive reforms, ranging from the funding of local government, the electoral system, and the damaging subsidisation of political parties to responding to the challenge of multiculturalism and becoming more engaged with European institutions.  

As Solveig Torvik, the Norwegian-American author, recalled earlier this year: ‘only one hour was allotted to a 2003 briefing in Storting [the Norwegian Parliament] on the study’s conclusions. The study and its findings sank like a stone – perhaps because it highlighted worrisome areas of decline in Norwegian democracy that certain factions of Norway’s political class might prefer to ignore.’ ( My guess is that behind Mr Stoltenberg’s impressive words was the thought that perhaps they should now be revisited.

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