A Norwegian Thatcher?

Leader of Norway's Progress Party, Siv Jensen, has good chance of winning this year's election.

siv jensen248.88 (photo credit: Kjetil Ree/Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike)
siv jensen248.88
(photo credit: Kjetil Ree/Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike)
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, academia and the chattering classes. Some of these black sheep - such as the British National Party, Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front and the late Jorg Haider's crew in Austria - really are beyond the pale; others are demonized simply because they challenge statist dogma and/or speak forbidden truths about Islamic immigration. In Scandinavia, the home of statism at its statiest, the most high-profile such entity is probably Pia Kjaersgaard's Danish People's Party. Two months after 9/11, voter anxiety about Islamization 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 Goran 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 antiestablishment 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 program would raise eyebrows in, say, moderate Republican circles in the US, its rejection of long-standing 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 Labor, that mighty architect of postwar Norway's huge state bureaucracy and welfare system. FrP, it's widely assumed, will garner enough votes in parliamentary elections this fall 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 pit bulls 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 humor seems actually to have tempered media hostility toward 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 naive 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. In an interview with Standpoint editor Daniel Johnson, she explains her views. Your party, the Progress Party, has sometimes been accused, on the left and in parts of the media, of being far right, comparable to Jean-Marie Le Pen - what is your answer to that? 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 favor 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. What is your party's policy on immigration? 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 March 8 (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. What do you think should be the role of a Muslim community in a Western European society like Norway, and how can we move toward a position where Muslims are properly integrated into our society? 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 Shari'a. 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. Do you think that the left-wing establishment in Norway understands the danger to the freedoms they enjoy as well, because the hostility toward your party is very extreme, isn't it? They've tried to exclude you from mainstream politics completely. 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. 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? 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. I believe you visited Israel recently. 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 recognize them in government. So you're against negotiating with them. You have to remember that the Norwegian government was the first government to recognize 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. Who are the other politicians you admire in Europe - or indeed, in the US? 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. You dissent, don't you, from the current consensus about climate change. How does this affect Norway, a very important energy producer? 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 two 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. 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? We had a banking crisis in Norway in the '80s and we had to make severe changes and after that we liberalized 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. So it's too much state intervention rather than too little. 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. This interview first appeared in the December issue of Standpoint magazine.