Profile: Too big for her roots: She made enemies in Cairo, but the world may need Norway's leader: Gro Harlem Brundtland

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The Independent Online
IT IS possible that, like most of her fellow Norwegians, Gro Harlem Brundtland is today in the open air - walking in the mountains, maybe, or picking wild berries, or laying up her sailing boat for the winter. Far more likely is that this workaholic premier will be dealing with affairs of state. What is certain is that she is not regretting the substance of her speech last week to the Cairo conference on world population - never mind that it offended vast slabs of the world and threatened her safety. Mrs Brundtland has never been one to tone down an argument for the sake of cosiness. She is a Viking warrior incarnate, smiting others not with the sword but with the strength of her beliefs. Norway's prime minister may be its longest-serving and most successful but, as Cairo demonstrated, Gro is no mistress of diplomacy nor a Machiavellian politician.

She has been tipped as a future UN secretary-general. 'If you'd asked me 10 days ago about her chances,' says a political commentator from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, 'I would have said they were very good. Now, no.'

Her speech split the conference. 'Morality,' she said, in a clear reproach to both the Roman Catholic and Islamic lobbies, 'becomes hypocrisy if it means mothers suffering or dying in connection with unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions of unwanted children.' Westerners (bar Vatican representatives) applauded, Third Worlders were horrified. Benazir Bhutto was moved to quote the Koran. A British security analyst warned that the Norwegian leader should prepare for threats from fanatics. Iran demanded that her speech be struck from the record.

She even annoyed Third World women who might be expected to sympathise with her views. Dr Vandana Shiva, the radical Indian feminist, accused her of narrowing women's rights instead of broadening them to include educational, economic and environmental rights. 'This conference should have been about men and women as partners, not just women as wombs.'

Mrs Brundtland is unlikely to be moved. Her forthrightness stunned even Margaret Thatcher, during a famously quarrelsome visit to Norway in 1986. She has a certainty about her philosophy and policies that is almost alarming. It is also rather Norwegian.

Gro, as she is known to all Norwegians, is rooted in Norway. Her hobbies are almost compulsory in that country - skiing, walking, sailing, demonstrating that devotion every true Norwegian has for friluftslivet or life in the fresh open air. It is a tough country: cold, dark and stormy for six months of

the year; unscalable mountains, gloomy trees, and an endless, perilous coastline. It produces tough people. Feebleness is deplored. So is flattery; Gro's mother never praises her only daughter's success. In a country where survival has always been a struggle - even its independence was won only in 1905 (from Sweden) and then temporarily lost again to Nazi occupation - nobody bothers much about social graces. Given the small population of 4 million there is little point.

GRO Harlem was born in 1939, the only daughter and eldest of four children of formidably political and successful parents - her father was a doctor, her mother a civil servant. At two, Gro was taken to Sweden while her father joined the Norwegian Resistance. After the war, she did well at school and decided to become a doctor. She married Arne Olav Brundtland at 20, finished her Harvard Master's in Public Health by 24 and had three children along the way. The fourth arrived a little later. At 29, she became assistant senior medical officer of the Oslo Board of Health.

From early childhood, she was steeped in politics: her father was a prominent member of Arbeider- partiet (the Labour Party) who twice served as a minister. She started reading Marx and other political theory at the age of 13. As a young woman, she also became heavily involved in feminism, particularly the abortion debate.

In 1974, she was plucked from her medical post by the Labour government to become one of the world's first Ministers for the Environment. She introduced legislation establishing national parks, control over rivers and, following the blow-out of the Bravo North Sea oil rig in 1977, exemplary safety measures. She entered the Storting (parliament) in 1977 and took over as Labour Party leader and prime minister in 1981. She was Norway's first woman prime minister and, at 42, its youngest. She immediately introduced a 40 per cent quota of women in to the Cabinet.

Her frankness and seeming ruthlessness quickly shocked: 'There simply isn't time to be a mother, a wife and a politician at the same time. My husband and children have to take a back seat.' She has since said, particularly after the suicide of her youngest son in 1992, that she should have given her children more time. Yet even after the suicide she behaved extraordinarily: a week off and then a public announcement that she was giving up the party leadership to concentrate on being prime minister.

The husband-and-wife relationship is, to British eyes, unusual and slightly mysterious. Arne Olav Brundtland may have taken over the household when his wife went into government but he also holds a post as a political scientist and writes a syndicated column. Further, he once served on Oslo's regional authority as a Conservative. In recent years, he has left the Conservatives and admitted publicly that he has voted for his wife's party. But he has not said whether he has joined up, and nobody in Norway is much interested.

Personally, Gro can be captivating and charming. She can also be curiously sentimental and apt to cry in public. 'She gets tears in her eyes wishing journalists happy Christmas,' notes one observer. In Tokyo in 1986 she cried inconsolably when told of the death of her friend and foreign minister, Knut Frydenlund. But her energy is legendary: 16-hour days are normal; staff leave in exhaustion; she is tough, rough, sometimes unaware of causing hurt; she has little sense of humour or time for trivia. 'In the Brundtland household,' it is said, 'you laugh next week.'

The comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, a fellow scientist, were inevitable. But the two of them did not get on as badly as everybody expected during the British leader's visit in 1986. 'The two of them were, as you might say, professional with each other,' says a colleague. The visit brought to a head all the rows Norway had with Britain: North Sea oil, fishing, whaling, acid rain and, since Norway had a Labour government, South African sanctions and British troops in Northern Ireland. There were violent demonstrations against Mrs Thatcher in Tromsoe and Oslo.

When Brundtland forced Thatcher to give in over demands to clean up the power stations which polluted Norway, Norwegians saw it as Amundsen beating Scott all over again. They tingled with pride. They may love to hate Gro sometimes for being overbearing or humourless but they have come to recognise her as the best leader they have. She's more popular than her party, more popular even than her policies. Gro wins because she's Gro.

WHAT BROUGHT her to international fame was the Brundtland Report - or 'Our Common Future'. She was appointed in 1984 - while out of office - to chair a 22-person UN commission on what to do about a pollution- threatened world. An American lawyer, Warren Lindner, who acted as secretary, praised the way she achieved a consensus and then an absolute commitment to the report from such a diverse international group, where Third World interests were so potentially divergent from those of the industrialised nations. 'She did it because she believes absolutely in democracy. She let people talk it through for themselves, she argued and listened. She was the one who took the commission round the world, holding public meetings with everyone from the Amazon to East Kalimantan. And she didn't miss one, not one.' The commission's report, published in 1987, introduced the concept of 'sustainable development' - that which allows the world's resources to be used for present needs while conserving them for future generations.

Gro has a great will to lead, to put her policies into action. She likes her country to do the same. It was she who encouraged her foreign minister Johan Joergen Holst in his extraordinary mission to bring Jews and Arabs together in secret meetings as a prelude to Middle East peace. A former foreign minister, Thorvald Stoltenberg, is now trying to achieve something similar in Bosnia.

Her most immediate fight now is over Europe: she wants Norway in and is arguing fearsomely. If Norway does say yes in a referendum on 28 November, Gro is even more unassailable as leader. If it's no to the EU, she'll probably stay on anyway because she will feel her country needs her more than ever.

But she could get bored with the domestic stage of a small country, and there are signs that, in her mid-fifties, she is slowing down - she took an unprecedented four weeks' holiday this summer. Yet, says a former associate, 'her staying in Norway is a waste for the world'. She would, most agree, see it as her duty to lead the UN if called. The question is whether her bluntness in Cairo has demolished her chances; whether, in fact, her very Norwegianness will keep her in Norway.

(Photograph omitted)

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