A Norwegian Thatcher?

The leader of Norway's Progress Party, Siv Jensen, has a good chance of winning next year's election. In an interview with Standpoint editor Daniel Johnson, she explains her views; Bruce Bawer explains the background to her meteoric career

Daniel Johnson: Your party, the Progress Party, has sometimes been accused, on the left and in parts of the media, of being far-right, comparable to Le Pen – what is your answer to that?

Siv Jensen: First of all, it’s important for me to clarify what we stand for. We are a classical liberal party, and are very much in favour of market mechanisms. We seek to improve the competitiveness of Norway, which is actually getting worse and worse. And when it comes to what is, I guess, the most critical issue, immigration, I believe that we stand for the exact same views as those held by the Liberal Party of Denmark, which is in government. We also share the views of [French President] Nicolas Sarkozy and, I believe, some of those prevalent among the Tories today. So we are very mainstream, I would say, for Europe these days. We need to do something about immigration, because if we don’t, as a very small country on the outskirts of Europe, we will end up with all kinds of problems.

DJ: What is your party’s policy on immigration?

SJ: We have had very, very poor integration in Norway over the past 30 years, and that has resulted in some very critical things. First of all, you see women now, even with Norwegian citizenship, who don’t know anything about their rights in a free modern country. They are kept locked away, they don’t know any Norwegian, they are totally incapable of taking part in their children’s upbringing. I think it’s very strange, because one of the good things about living in the Western world is that as a woman you have total freedom. And their rights are in practice non-existent, because we let them bring the bad sides of their culture. I believe that that is what they originally fled from, so I really don’t understand that.

You see young girls being put through forced circumcision, which is not acceptable. There are also a substantial number of forced marriages, and the authorities just let it happen. So I think this is the critical test, not only for Norway but for all of us, when we fight for human rights in other parts of the world and fight for women’s rights. But it’s not really something that we take seriously enough. I mean, when women parade in Oslo on 8 March (International Women’s Day), they have old feminist slogans. This is silly really because Norway is a country of equality. What they should be more focused on are the women in third-world countries, in Afghanistan for instance, where they are so oppressed. It’s ridiculous that we can let this happen.

DJ: What do you think should be the role of a Muslim community in a Western European society like Norway, and how can we move towards a position where Muslims are properly integrated into our society?

SJ: I think the mistake has been that we have not been very clear as to what our demands are. We open up our country, they are welcome to come, especially if they are in need, fleeing from another country, but coming to Norway, or coming to Britain, has to mean full integration.

You need to learn the language, you need to go to school, you need to get a job, you need to be able to support yourself and your family, you cannot be allowed to live on welfare for too long. That’s what’s happening in Norway. There is a very large number of immigrants living on welfare and they have been for a very, very long time. That is not helping people. And I believe also that letting that happen is dangerous because it means they end up outside society. They end up without education, without friends and without money.

They often tend to commit crimes and end up in prison, where they can get the wrong ideas. So the best thing for us to do is to be extremely strong on integration, and be very clear about that before people come to Norway. That is our demand. If you’re happy to come, you are welcome, but you have to follow certain ground-rules. And we shall not give into demands from certain Muslim societies to accept Sharia. It is not compatible with the standards of the Western world. We have one set of rules, we have laws, and you cannot have a different set of laws for a certain group of people.

DJ: Do you think that the left-wing establishment in Norway understands the danger to the freedoms they enjoy as well, because the hostility towards your party is very extreme, isn’t it? They’ve tried to exclude you from mainstream politics completely.

SJ: Not very successfully though. We have been growing for the past 15 years and we’re doing extremely well these days. And it has nothing to do with racism or extremism at all. It has everything to do with protecting some of the most crucial parts of Western society, it has to do with defending freedom of speech, the freedom of each individual, defending human rights. These freedoms are so crucial to what our society is based on – if they are threatened, then our future is threatened. We saw them being threatened with the Danish cartoons, and I was quite disappointed even with the Norwegian government at that time, because they were not able to stand up to defend one of the most crucial rights of a modern society.

I respect totally the fact that people have different views on different things. I even respect the communists; even though I hate communism, I respect people’s right to defend it. What I don’t respect is when that leads to abolishing important parts of a free society. That is what we have to fight against, and if we let our guard down on those issues we will end up in a mess in just a few years’ time.

DJ: Are anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism or even anti-Semitism a big problem in Norway? Do you find that there is a lot of hostility towards America and Israel?

SJ: I don’t see it as a big problem, but there are quite a few people with those views. But some of us are able to stand up to that. And I’m not afraid to defend Israel’s right to defend itself. It is unfortunately surrounded by very chaotic countries. Israel is the only Western country in that region. It is a country that respects human rights, respects all the things that we place very highly here. And they have problems. I don’t blame them for wanting to defend themselves, but they’re always accused of violating and interfering and trespassing, and I just don’t understand why left-wing journalists keep on reporting this from a very subjective point of view.

DJ: I believe you visited Israel recently.

SJ: Yes, I did. I visited a small town called Sderot and it was actually under attack while I was there, so we had to run for the air-raid shelter, and we heard the bombs. People were killed. They have been under these attacks constantly, daily. And it does something to young girls and boys in school when they have to be evacuated several times a day. How can they learn in such an environment? It’s impossible for them, but that’s everyday life in that region, and it’s just impossible to understand. Some of the very hostile Palestinians have these rockets and the launchers in their living rooms, and they just put it up, launch a rocket, pack it up and continue with their everyday lives. That’s what’s happening, and it’s a threat not just to Israelis, but to ordinary Palestinians. The only thing they want is a peaceful life, and to be able to support their families and to go to work every day. That’s what they want, and they are totally unable to, because of Hamas controlling Gaza and creating fear by terrorist acts, even against their own people, and we need to stop that. I don’t think it will be very easy to see successful negotiations with the Palestinian side as long as you have Hamas as a very strong faction. That’s why it’s so dangerous to recognise them in government.

DJ: So you’re against negotiating with them.

SJ: You have to remember that the Norwegian government was the first government to recognise Hamas. We protested vigorously against that, because you don’t negotiate with terrorists, you just don’t. A terrorist is a terrorist, no matter what. You don’t negotiate with them; that will make the whole process so much more difficult. I believe some of us need to stand up for that, and there are not too many politicians who dare to do it, but I do.

DJ: Who are the other politicians you admire in Europe – or indeed, in the US?

SJ: I see Sarah Palin as a very strong and vital woman who can do good things for the US in future years. I think that Sarkozy is a strong and good leader for France, with the ability and strength to reform his country. It’s absolutely necessary to do that. I’m curious about the renewal of the Tories. It’s interesting what is happening there these days, and I have had the pleasure of meeting with a few of their politicians. They have good ideas, good plans, good reforms, and what I see is that they have gotten back some of the guts that you saw under Margaret Thatcher, who is one of my political heroes. She stood up as so strong in everything that she did, and she fought fights – all necessary ones. This made the UK into a better country, and it made it better for the average British woman after the reforms that she made.

DJ: It’s interesting that David Cameron mentioned Lady Thatcher, probably for the first time, in his last big speech, so perhaps he is beginning to rediscover that legacy.

SJ: There’s no need to be ashamed of what she did.

DJ: Do you think that the West is getting the problem of Iceland right?

SJ: No, no. Not at all, and I’m actually a bit worried about the positions Gordon Brown is taking on that. I have no problem seeing that the bankruptcy of huge Icelandic banks is creating problems for British people, it even creates problems for Norwegian people. But that has to do with the financial scandal that we’re seeing. The problem now is that Gordon Brown is attacking Iceland instead of trying to be part of a rescue plan, and I believe that it’s Europe’s responsibility, Norway’s responsibility, to reach out and help them.

But what has happened is that Icelandic politicians have visited Moscow, negotiating the terms of a possible loan. And that is not just a loan; if they accept the terms, that will have an impact on the geopolitical situation in that region. It will affect not only Iceland, it will affect Norway. But it will also affect Europe, and even the US. It has to do with controlling the resources in that area, it has to do with controlling fisheries, oil and gas. I mean, it’s dangerous. And so you cannot isolate that into being just a consequence of the financial crisis. It’s so much more. And in modern warfare, if I can put it that way, where you have asymmetric warfare, you have to think far beyond what we are used to when it comes to Cold War thinking. You cannot see Russia in a Cold War perspective any more, but they’re getting their strength back, they’re getting financial muscles, they’re building an oil fund, they have been rebuilding their army for quite some time, whereas Europe has gone the other way around, and that creates challenges. In today’s warfare scenarios, you have to include economics, financial issues, trade, and energy issues, and ignoring that is very dangerous.

DJ: So are you worried about Russia?

SJ: Yes, I am very worried about it, even though Russia is a neighbouring country to Norway. We have a mutual border, and we have had increased trade relations for years. And they are pretty good, we have a solid neighbourly relationship, friendly actually, but what we see recently is more hostile activity from Russia. They have increased their flights over Norwegian territory, we’re not back to where we were during the Cold War, but you can see an incredible increase, and it should worry more people than me.

DJ: You mentioned energy. You dissent, don’t you, from the current consensus about climate change. How does this affect Norway, a very important energy producer?

SJ: We can see that climate changes are happening, but they have been happening for as long as the world has existed. The question is whether they are man-made or not, or whether they are dangerous or not. Just some 30 years ago, all these scientists said that the world was getting colder, and now they have changed their mind and say that the world is getting warmer. So is that what’s happening, or isn’t it?

Nevertheless, we are in a situation worldwide where approximately 2 billion people lack access to electricity, and those demands will just grow as we reach new levels of welfare throughout the world, which means that the demand for energy will increase. Norway has every opportunity to be a market leader in that because we have the know-how, the technology, especially in renewable energy production, which we have been doing for a long time. We could have been self-sufficient if we had done something about it, but just in the middle of the debate on climate change we have put ourselves in a situation where we still import coal from Europe, and it doesn’t add up when our government says that we still need to do something about climate change issues. Well, if that is true then you need to fight coal-energy production, which is probably the most dangerous energy resource that we have today. But instead we end up importing coal when we could be self-sufficient, and what we should do is export our technology, our competence, to the rest of the world, help them produce renewable energy and help them set up production facilities that they don’t have today.

DJ: Turning to the financial crisis, and economics generally, you’re a very strong supporter of classical economics and the free market.

What would you change about what is sometimes called the Scandinavian model, the big welfare state and so on? What specifically do you think needs to be done to make Norway prosperous again?

SJ: We had a banking crisis in Norway in the ’80s and we had to make severe changes and after that we liberalised the whole market. But we set up a good regulatory framework, and you have to be an anarchist to be against regulatory frameworks, and any good market liberal will agree that regulatory frameworks are very important, to make markets work better.

But what I see now is that socialists and social democrats throughout Europe and even in the United States, are getting some renewed energy defending their ideology, claiming that the reason for this financial scandal has to do with liberalism or market failure or capitalism, which is not true at all. It has to do with mistakes made actually by [former US President] Bill Clinton, and it has to do not with the lack of regulation but with the wrong regulation, with forcing financial institutions to lend money to people without the capacity to pay it back. I think people need to be reminded of that.

DJ: So it’s too much state intervention rather than too little.

SJ: Well, that’s actually the reason behind the scandal in the United States: too much state intervention and the wrong state intervention. If they had regulated the markets as many of the European countries have done, it wouldn’t have happened.

DJ: And do you think, in general, that the future of Europe lies in a more liberal market system? Are you critical of the European Union and the way that it is run?

SJ: Yes, I am. I believe that the EU has done some good things for Europe, even for Norway, which is not a member. I believe in free trade, and free trade is part of the European idea.

I believe in free trade for all countries in the world, and I believe that is the only way to help third world countries. They’re not allowed to prosper from all the good things within the EU, because they’re left outside. And the double standards. I mean, it’s ridiculous, when we claim that we want to help them and we have all those discussions on foreign aid policy issues but their plight is getting worse because of protectionism.

I was very critical when the monetary policy regime was put forward for Europe because it’s difficult to have a unanimous monetary policy without having a unanimous fiscal policy. And you see that now. I think the financial crisis is a very good example of that. What happens if France and Germany, or France and England, go in totally different directions with their economies, where the monetary policy will be of huge importance? They cannot have the same interest-rate level in a situation like that. But they are forced to have it. Eventually, that will probably lead to something like the United States of Europe, which is a totally different thing from the EU.

I also believe that one of the weakest things about the EU is the extreme bureaucracy that has been created. The Eurocrats have distanced themselves from the everyday life of Europeans. So I don’t blame Europeans for not understanding what goes on in Brussels, I don’t blame them for voting against the new constitution.

They don’t understand what they’re discussing, what they’re doing, what’s happening, because Brussels has created this huge distance between the policy-makers and the people. So they need to do something about that, and do something about their language, their rhetoric, and above all to do something about the enormous bureaucracy. I’m very much against bureaucracy, we need to fight bureaucracy, because we spend tax-payers’ money on it.

DJ: And you’re in favour of lower taxes, are you? I rather assume you are.

SJ: I am, very much so.

DJ: In spite of the fact that this crisis has led to nationalisation of banks, and public spending to prop up the system, so it will be harder to cut taxes. Do you think that is still going to be possible if you come to power?

SJ: We do have a financial crisis, which is basically a crisis for the banking sector, yes you will see some businesses fail because of what’s happening on the stock exchanges. But that happens from time to time. What’s more important is that we are on our way to a huge world recession, and lowering taxes is a good way to fight recession. So I believe that many European countries will have to do that in order to create growth in the economy.

Siv Jensen: Creating a New Wave in Scandinavian Politics


These days nearly every Western European country has at least one of them – a large political party that’s held at arm’s length by the media, political establishment, professoriate and chattering classes. Some of these black sheep – such as the BNP, Le Pen’s National Front, and the late Jörg Haider’s crew in Austria – really are beyond the pale; others are demonised simply because they challenge statist dogma and/or speak forbidden truths about Islamic immigration.

Here in Scandinavia, the home of statism at its statiest, the most high-profile such entity is probably Pia Kjærsgaard’s Danish People’s Party. Two months after 9/11, voter anxiety about Islamisation swept out the Social Democrats (in power since 1924) and installed a conservative coalition – which, with strong DPP support, has since instituted effective, and popular, reforms (and stood foursquare for free speech during the cartoon crisis). The picture in Sweden is different: although the 2006 election exchanged Göran Persson’s long-dominant Social Democrats for a “moderate” coalition, systemic changes have been modest, and the only major critics of the Swedes’ essentially unmodified “see-no-evil” immigration policy have been the Sweden Democrats – a group, alas, that has a history of neo-Nazi ties and anti-Semitic rhetoric (and, in any case, has yet to win a single Riksdag seat).

Somewhere in between lies Norway, whose major anti-establishment faction is the Progress Party, or Fremskrittspartiet (FrP for short). Founded in 1973, it was run for 28 years by the charismatic Carl I. Hagen, whose tough-talking pugnacity made him a standout, in the ’80s and ’90s, in a largely bland political firmament. Though nothing in the party’s programme would raise eyebrows in, say, moderate Republican circles in the US, its rejection of longstanding Nordic assumptions about the role of the state has long led the media to caricature its ideology as dangerous, its supporters as unevolved lowbrows, and Hagen as a demagogue. Yet FrP survived – and thrived. Though other parties (of Left and Right) have collaborated to deny its MPs top government positions, FrP now not only dwarfs the once-powerful Conservatives but also rivals Labour, that mighty architect of postwar Norway’s huge state bureaucracy and welfare system. FrP, it’s widely assumed, will garner enough votes in next September’s parliamentary elections to form a government.

Such an outcome would be a triumph for both market liberalism and common sense about immigration – and a massive blow for that once seemingly indomitable colossus, Scandinavian social democracy. Yet the victory’s public face won’t be Hagen, who retired in 2006, but his longtime second-in-command, Siv Jensen. In one sense, Jensen, 39, fits neatly into the current crop of Norwegian party heads: like her, the Conservatives’ Erna Solberg and the Socialist Left’s Kristin Halvorsen are formidable blonde pitbulls born in the 1960s. But the Thatcher-like brio with which Jensen defies PC pieties sets her apart. A shrewd, compelling debater, she’s unyielding on core principles, but nonetheless cuts a more congenial figure than her sometimes blustering predecessor. Indeed, her wry humour seems actually to have tempered media hostility towards FrP.

Tempered, but not quelled. Last year, sophisticates cheered a book, FrP-Koden (The Progress Party Code), in which Magnus Marsdal, a veteran of such Communist institutions as Attac, Red Youth and the newspaper Klassekampen, puzzled over the rise of “Norway’s most unsympathetic party”. Yet ordinary Norwegians can see clearly why FrP has risen like a phoenix: its warnings about unchecked social democracy and naïve immigration policies have proven all too prescient, and for many Norwegians Jensen and her party represent the only hope for meaningful change. If she wins power, she may yet provide a model of gutsy liberalism and immigration common sense for all of Europe.

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