New right takes a grip on Norway

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The Independent Online
There is a distinct Eighties feeling about Oslo, down to an imitation Docklands near the centre, thronged by cardboard cut-out yuppies on mountain bikes. The buildings are brand new and tall, matching the prices in the chic boutiques inside.

It is boomtime in Norway, and Norwegians are trying hard to live up to, and show off, their wealth. But as old-fashioned egalitarianism is gradually engulfed by a "loadsamoney" ethos, a mean-spirited attitude is also creeping into the national pysche.

In next Monday's general elections, an unprecedented proportion of Norwegians are expected to cast their votes for a party trumpeting a brand of nationalism not unlike that of Jean-Marie Le Pen. The mis-named Progress Party, which astonished everybody four years ago by winning 6.3 per cent, was the choice of one out of four voters in some recent polls. The latest poll rating is 17 per cent, still enough to make it the second-biggest party after Labour in the next parliament, and a possible building block in a right- wing coalition. Not bad for a party once derided as a one-man show, the fan club of the remarkable Carl I Hagen.

Mr Hagen is a 54-year old libertarian, a gifted speaker who for 20 years has been no more than a fringe source of amusement on the fringes of politics. Law and order, he once suggested, could be secured by packing criminals off to the barren Arctic island of Svalbard.

His favourite whipping boys these days are people who do not speak proper Norwegian. These include the Sami (Lapp) minority, who, Mr Hagen argued during the campaign, should not be taught their own language at the state's expense.

Although there are very few foreigners indeed in Norway, Mr Hagen is deeply worried about them. "We advocate a fairly restrictive immigration policy," says Morten Hoeglund, a senior Progress Party adviser. "In that sense we are similar to Le Pen."

The xenophobia is served up, however, with a distinctly Norwegian flavour. While Mr Hagen preaches Thatcherite economics, including tax cuts all around, he manages to come through as the defender, not the enemy, of Norway's welfare state.

"We do not have to behave as if we were the poorest country in Europe when it comes to necessary services for our citizens," he told journalists this week. "There are a lot of ordinary people in Norway, particularly old people, who are fed up with hearing again and again that we are one of the richest countries, but the Finance Minister says we have to save money for future pensioners."

The poorest they are certainly not. Norway is awash with oil money, and the country has been running a budget surplus for three years. The economy is in danger of overheating. Unemployment is under 4 per cent; property prices are exploding.

The Labour Prime Minister, Thorbjoern Jagland, says the surplus must be saved for a rainy day, so that pensioners of the future can be paid when there is no more oil and gas left. The Progress Party, and many Norwegians, want a bit more jam today. "We are the new caretakers of the working class," proclaims Mr Hoeglund. "Labour have deserted the welfare state."

Labour are expected to win about 37 per cent of the vote on Monday, the same as four years ago. Depending on how the smaller left-wing parties do, that may not be enough to form a government. However silly it might have seemed only a few months ago, the prospect of Mr Hagen coming to power is no longer inconceivable.