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                                DEMOCRAtization in SCANDINAVIA
                                            THE CASE OF Norway



NORWAY, under the rule of a Danish governor (during the 400‑year union with Denmark until 1814), was treated as a province. The legitimacy of the union rested on the dynastic principle, and the peace treaty of Kiel ceded Norway to the Swedish king, due to Denmark-Norway’s participation in the Napoleonic wars on the side of France. Despite being in union with Denmark, the Norwegian administration and economic development were separate. At the time national identity was underdeveloped, while the political elites comprising of officials and wealthy merchants (patricians) were demanding full independence and a separate constitution. An uprising whose ideological force was drawn from the “revolutionary” ideas of the time, mainly American and French, brought only limited progress. In the face of Sweden’s military supremacy, the new union was impossible to prevent. Even if Norway had to accept a Swedish king, the main principles of the written constitution, approved during the spring 1814, remained almost unaltered. 

THE CONSTITUTION was strictly based on the principle of separation of powers, defining clear-cut spheres of competence between executive (the king himself and the government appointed by him) and legislature (parliament, in Norway named Stortinget, henceforth called the Storting). By contemporary standards the constitution was markedly democratic. Suffrage applied only to males, amongst which only owner-occupier peasants (including those who leased land registered for taxation), officials, and the urban bourgeoisie who had the right to vote. This was the base for a sovereign nation-state, legitimized by an elective constitutional democracy where decisions on law-making ultimately lay with free citizens in elections. The precondition for this to work was that those granted the right to vote had to be willing to use the right, that citizens regarded themselves as members of a national community. 

IN THE SECOND HALF of the nineteenth century a national identity spread itself throughout broader sections of the population. The underprivileged organized and demanded the full rights as members of the nation. As a result men, age 25 and older, in 1898 received the right to give their votes in general elections (parliamentary as well as local) and followed by women in the 1913.  National identities were standardized across social classes as a result of an improved infrastructure. The school-system also improved, and in the 1870’s, when the rotary press was introduced, news and political agitation spread even to the most remote districts.

FINALLY, the struggles about the union with Sweden intensified from the nineties, strengthening the national
identity. A climax of agitation and conflicts was reached in 1905 and the union dissolved. During these
struggles the final steps were taken towards a parliamentary system, i.e. a system in which the government
holds office until it is defeated by a vote of majority in the

THE CHANGE from constitutional monarchy to parliamentarian democracy, was a transformation in three stages:

  • The first stage of the transformation was a gradual mobilization of groups that in the 1814 gained the right to vote and the access to the election for representatives to the Storting. This mobilization was leveled against the power held by the state bureaucracy and from the 1884 onwards, the king had to accept the government which was supported by majority in the Storting.
  • The second stage ran simultaneously with the political conflicts that brought the union with Sweden to an end. The dissolution process was a climax in the nation-building process. The union king was swept away, Norway remained a monarchy, and from now on the government had to take full responsibility for decisions made in the name of the executive. Simultaneously conservatives, as well as liberals, during the years 1905–1908, accepted as a political norm that government has to resign in a case of the vote of no confidence.         
  • The third stage, which partly took place in the period until 1932, was a process of constitutional adjustment. At that time the main principle of parliamentarian government was regarded as a legal norm, introduced as customary constitutional law.  

IN THIS ARGUMENT my intension is to show more precisely how the transition to parliamentary democracy developed. Emphasis will be put on the connection between two processes, the nation-building and the democratization. 

Explanatory efforts

HISTORIANS opened the field of social science. From the middle of the 19th century a view of Norway was created as a separate nation in relation to the partner in union, Sweden. Many historians were concerned with legitimizing the new nation-state with presentations of ethnicity, community of language, and common history. This involvement was not unique. In number of countries intellectuals, and particularly historians, took active part in the shaping of national identity. A common starting‑point was the “Young Europe” association, founded in the 1834 by Guiseppe Mazzini. Mazzini built on the idea of the right of “nations” to have a “state”, and seen in this manner, the national identification was a construction. The historians involved were thus co-creators of Benedict Anderson`s «imagined communities».Especially from the 1870´s and the 1880´s the Norwegian historians intensified the efforts for explaining democratization in progress. 

THE MOST INFLUENTIAL HISTORIAN, Ernst Sars (1835-1917), was inspired by French evolutionary ideas, particularly those of Auguste Comte and Fustel de Coulanges. Some years later Halvdan Koht (1873-1965) introduced a revision of the same paradigm. His concern was to make a synthesis of nation building and democratization on what he himself regarded as a Marxist basis. He emphasized that history was driven forward by class struggle. The working classes revolted only after the peasants. For him the independence in 1905 resulted from the long struggle for democracy of the peasants. On certain points his synthesis can be criticized for being teleological, but the argument about the dissolution of the union and the ultimate breakthrough of parliamentarianism seen in same perspective, was relevant.   

THE FIELD OF HISTORY was strongly dominated by the paradigm introduced by Sars and Koht until the middle of the 20th century. Since then a new generation of historians have tended to move away from synthesizing evolution theories and towards narrow sector analyses. Much of the research has been solely individual‑oriented. Other historians raised the analysis to the sectoral level, taking on only limited areas of the life of the society, such as party history, parliamentary history, and economic history.  They were not really oriented towards syntheses, and above all their works suffered from deficient conceptions of democracy and of what parliamentarianism really is. 

IN THIS PERSPECTIVE the model developed by the sociologist Stein Rokkan (1921–79) is a more fruitful contribution. Rokkan had the synthesizing ambition needed, to treat the complex matters we are dealing with. He attempted to integrate basic preconditions, such as cultural variations, political traditions, and socio‑economic systems, with ongoing social conflicts. He was also concerned with that his model assumed a form that allowed for systematic comparison. Rokkan proposed a number of central research areas. One area was concerned with how the state penetrated into the surrounding society. Another are of his research was concerned with how the population was integrated into the state community: this encompassed recruitment to the state bodies, the school system, and the linking of the various districts that came from the expansion of the communications network. Yet another research area was concerned with the growth of a national “identity”, which was in the first place linked to the spread of literacy, the organization of teacher training, and the creation of state‑guided religious observance. Rokkan’s other research areas were concerned with how the population accepted the established political order (legitimacy), as well as participation in elections, membership of parties and organizations, newspaper readership, and so on. Rokkan linked the actual historical substance in nation‑building to tension between centre and periphery on the one hand, and a functional integration on the other. 

ROKKAN’S CONTRIBUTION was to create relatively abstract models: “… to develop multi-dimensional typologies for configurational complexes; the typologies which tap significant elements of each historical-political context and yet allow wide-ranging comparative analysis, dimension by dimension.” If we start from a contrary position, results obtained by means of a comparative project, will make it easier to spot the most important elements to explain why for example certain political institutions developed in a particular direction. In this respect historians will have much to gather from Rokkan’s contributions to comparative scholarship. 

ONE PROBLEM REMAINS, however. Rokkan did not always manage to construct his models in an empirically satisfactory way. With references to later studies, he may be criticized for not sufficiently dealing with the deliberate nation‑building conducted by politicians, academics, and artists. He also ignored the nationalist activist ideology and the political actions which they’ve risen to in the period up to the 1905. In my opinion the determined nationalists were the ones who created the conflicts with Sweden. These conflicts in turn served to weld the nation even closer together than what it was. Rokkan´s perspective surely embraced extension of suffrage to under-privileged groups, but on the other hand he can be criticized for not being sufficiently concerned with the transition to parliamentary democracy. 

ØYVIND ØSTERUD, in the subject area of nation‑building, brought the nationalist ideology and deliberate nation‑building into Rokkan’s model by bringing in the theoretical positions developed within international comparative research. Amongst other things, Østerud points out how during the growth of mass society, when traditional social bonds were torn apart, the Norwegian patriotism fulfilled a general need of belonging. 

IN MY ARGUMENT I will describe in more detail the process itself and its connection to the nation building. The general explanation model of the process of democratization is based on the following terms: a lack of legitimacy and changing of the political and legal norms. In short:

As a result of legitimacy crisis the new constitutional norms came into being. More precisely a crisis generated competing political norms that put the established system of government under pressure. In the following round the written legal norms are readjusted according to the new way of thinking. The constitution is either rewritten or the new norms are accepted as customary constitutional laws.

IN NORWAY the crisis of legitimacy coincided with the two stages of nation building. Until the 1884 the new norms challenged the normative platform for the dominance of bureaucracy, and until the 1905 the power that the union king at the time still possessed. In this second stage, the democratic demands are intensified and more systematically based on the principle of parliamentarian rule. This last transformation was to a certain degree an effect of nationalistic demands. 

AFTER 1905 it took almost thirty years until the norm of parliamentary government became a legal one. Behind this slow transition, which I interpret as a legal adjustment, one can regard alternating acceptance, first by experts on constitution law and thereafter by politicians. In my view of the events until the 1932, the nation-building model plays a less dominating role. 

An extension of Rokkan´s model

The first stage

IN REFERENCE TO the national identification and democratization, we have to emphasize the cultural gathering that occurred from the 1870’s. At that time, railways and roads opened up more or less the isolated districts for the outside world. By building the primary schools the education improved, and the distribution of newspapers and periodicals increased. In addition people joined in increasing numbers the country‑wide organizations. This led to a process of consolidation of opinions and attitudes, and it spread the feeling of belonging to the national community. It became easier to gather people from different areas and sectors of the society on common aims.    

MY CONCLUSION at this point is similar to what Robert A. Dahl has pointed out on a comparative ground: Modern market economy is not necessarily a pre-condition for democratization; on the other hand education and communication are more decisive factors. Market integration also came relatively late in Norway; for agriculture this development was linked to investment into new machines, which in turn led to credit obligations and dependence on buying and selling. The latter process started in the 1860’s, but began to accelerate only after the turn of the century, and especially in the years around the First World War.

MY ANALYSIS of the political aspects of the same integration rests on Rokkan’s four stages: allocation of rights (formal incorporation), use of rights (mobilization), own representation (activation) and nationalization of lines of conflict in society (politicization). Already in 1814 peasants dominated in terms of numbers within the electorate, and simultaneously they became eligible for election to the Storting. But a long time passed before the broad range of these voter groups used their right, they allowed the domination of the officials, not just administrative, but also political. But the transition to communal self‑government (1837) meant that peasants began to get better schooling as politicians, and from the middle of the century, more and more of them dared to be nominated for parliamentary elections.  

FOR THE FIRST TWELVE YEARS after 1814 rural districts provided the Parliament with 47 % governmental officials and only 45 % classified as ‘peasants’ (Rokkan´s category are “freeholders, other farmers, sheriffs and parish clerks”). In the years 1859–74 the corresponding proportions were respectively 17 % and 74 %.  At that time, a radical opposition to the old regime started mobilizing and demanded strengthening the right of local communities to take more decisions on their own. To maintain such goals, the opposing groups had to take firmer control over the central state power. 

GRADUALLY the peasantry challenged the social and political power possessed by higher officials. From the 1870´s the more concrete claim was made to extend parliamentary control by forcing members of the government to take part in parliamentary debates. Participation in elections in the 1884 boomed because of the struggles around this constitutional matter. According to Rokkan, votes cast in percent of registered voters living in rural districts, during the period 1879 to 1882, increased from 45.2 % to 70.1 %. The average level since 1814 had been about 45.0 %. 

THE AIMS PROMOTED by the oppositional groups presupposed a change in the written constitution. For more than twenty years the government stubbornly gave support to the king when he vetoed this constitutional Act. It was still not clarified if the king had the right to veto constitutional acts at all, alternatively if he possessed a suspensive (like that one he surely had in ordinary acts) or an absolute veto. In the 1884 the members of the government were condemned by the Court of the impeachment (named Riksretten), in which according to the constitution the Storting held the key position.  The court was at this time only contented to reject the use of an absolute veto. It was not ascertained until the 1913 that the constitution did not accept a veto at all. 

FROM 1884 it was immensely difficult to form a new government that was not at least tacitly accepted by a majority in the Storting. Seen in this perspective the impeachment, and the political polarization it raised, was a first step towards parliamentarian government. This transition was also supported by the existence of political parties first organized during the constitutional struggles, but there was still no general agreement on the norm that a government has to resign after a vote of no confidence. As late as in the 1890´s a conservative government did not agree. 

The second stage

MY NEXT STEP is to show in more detail how national identification, an active nationalism and democratization interacted in the years before 1905. One must distinguish analytically between the phenomena of national identification and nationalism. The former  basically  involves  consciousness

of belonging to a community which is created by history, and which is characterized by a certain similarity in customs and forms of beliefs. One may appreciate this community, or at least parts of it, without necessarily being a nationalist. Nationalism, for its part, involves both an ideology and a program of action. The ideology endorses ideas about the people (folket), the ethnic group, or indeed the race having special qualities. In general the political goals will be either to conquer territory or to defend oneself against a conquest, or in some cases to break away from a larger state. The latter interpretation is relevant in this context. 

IN MY ARGUMENT the following presupposition is important: despite the fact that national identification was strengthened in the course of the 1880’s, it was still not sufficiently aggressive to tear Norway out of the union. Only in the very last phase of the union did a spontaneous tide of opinion rise to embrace the entire nation: “The fatherland must tear itself loose!” Thus the national identification at the time bore nationalism in its womb. For the majority of Norwegian voters, this involved a temporary ideology of action, which grew only when the Swedes displayed their arrogance, and which receded after the dissolution of the union. 

THE POLITICS that created conflicts and drove developments towards the break with Sweden sprang in the first instance from a nationalist movement whose socio‑economic roots lay in certain parts of agrarian society. The movement manifested itself in the 1880’s in riflemen associations, which constituted a popular militia of the radicals in the constitutional struggle until the 1884 and it was prominent again in the language question (the campaign for the use of New Norwegian (“nynorsk”), and in a nationalist youth movement which was consolidated in 1896 into the organization “Noregs Ungdomslag”. Around 1905 this youth movement comprised almost 50 000 members, distributed among about 800 local groups, while there were fewer than 70 local language associations.

THE GROWTH of a nationalist ideology must be seen in the context of the changes society underwent during industrialization, from the middle of the 19th century until the outbreak of the First World War. The economic historical part of this interpretation is based on the anthropological tradition established by A. V. Chayanov’s classic work The Theory of Peasant Economy, whereas the political-historical part is in the first instance inspired by the British historian Eric J. Hobsbawm. The form of agrarian nationalism encountered here is evidently not a specifically Norwegian phenomenon. Drawing on comparative studies by the Czech scholar Miroslav Hroch, Hobsbawm shows that such movements often occurred when peasants came in contact with industrial society. Nationalism became a part of a defensive ideology, directed against the social and economic transformations set in motion by industrialization and the development of the market. As a general trait, Hobsbawm suggests, nationalism had its greatest appeal in areas that were not yet fully integrated, but where industrial society was sufficiently near at hand for the inhabitants, and especially peasants, to feel threatened. This pattern suits Norway well. The core areas of nationalism in the last part of the nineteenth century covered a central belt of the country, which included the valleys and the inner fjord areas (“mountain and fjord Norway”). 

OCCUPATIONS in these cultural areas corresponded in many ways to the transitional society described by Hobsbawm. Specifically, subsistence agriculture was practiced; the farm constituted a social and economic unit, and the goal was to secure the livelihood of the household for a year at a time. Socially, politically, and culturally the individual district communities comprised relatively stable and closed units. In terms of business activity, “mountain and fjord Norway” differed from both the fisheries districts along the coast, which were strongly linked to the market economy from early on, and the most industrialized areas around the Oslo fjord. In large parts of “mountain and fjord Norway”, the numbers involved in secondary activities were relatively small as late as the census of 1900. This observation applies especially to areas where the first shooting associations and the later youth movement had the bulk of their members. The same areas belonged to the strongest bastions of the New Norwegian language. Furthermore Venstre (bourgeoisie “Left”) regularly received around three‑quarters of the votes here in the Storting elections around the turn of the century. Generally speaking this nationalism sprung out of the old democratic movement. 

AS POINTED OUT by Halvdan Koht, the demands for more democracy in the 1890’s are to be regarded as expectations logically derived from the conflicts until the 1884. From the beginning, the union with Sweden had been a loose one. Norway not only got its own constitution, but also a separate parliament and a national government. Such institutions paved the way for an internal democratization that ran parallel to the mobilization of the less privileged sectors. On the other hand, the two states where linked together with a common king. He had the right to veto a parliamentarian Act three times, and he had much of control over the military and foreign affairs. Beside this his power was also in some respects strengthened by the Act of Union (Riksakten). Economically the two states were linked together by the Union Trade Act (Mellomriksloven).  

ALREADY from the 1830’s the king had tried often to make the union closer. The nationalists partly stiff-necked rejected all such attempts and demanded greater independence. After 1884 the Norwegian demands for increased sovereignty and more democracy became stronger, and consequently the king of the union was regarded as the main hindrance. From the early 1890´s politicians linked to the nationalist movement played an active part in pushing forward the conflicts with Sweden. In this struggle it seems as if the radicals were driven by a need to outbid each other in national fervor. 

THE REVISION of the party program in 1891, dealt with by the historian Rolf Danielsen, for example, resulted from the pressure by a “noisy” opposition. At the party’s national conference, they managed to push through a vague proposal about “an arrangement of the treatment of the diplomatic question, which introduces significant constitutional responsibility for the Norwegian state authorities”, which also meant that Norway should nominate its own foreign minister. The latter was a radical demand, which few, if any, Swedish politicians, could have accepted at this point without declaring war. The most radical within Venstre began to call for full independence in the 1890’s. Høyre (The Right Party), however, showed great respect for the union’s existing institutions. On the question of revising the relationship within the union, Høyre opted for negotiation rather than unilateral Norwegian actions, right up to the very last phase.

AS A RESULT of these conflicts, the king had to loose power in the long run, above all his personal right to block ordinary parliamentarian Acts by using suspensive veto. Before the dissolution of the union in 1905, the Storting approved a law providing for a separate Norwegian consular service. The king refused to sanction it. Christian Michelsen’s coalition government for its part refused to sign it, and left office. The situation was deadlocked, as no other party could take over. On the 7th of June 1905, the Storting responded by declaring the union dissolved. Broad support for this decision proved that Venstre’s activism had also won through on the national level. Even Høyre, which in the 1890’s was prepared to accept the extension of the union’s institutions, accepted the separatist solution. By referendum on the August 13th, the voters unanimously endorsed the decree of June the 7th

THE BACKGROUND to the unanimity in 1905 is worth recapitulating. In 1902 negotiations with Sweden began. The following year, the two countries’ governments issued a communiqué which proposed a separate consular service. The declaration was vaguely formulated, but it created great expectations in Norway. The conservatives especially looked forward to a solution of this issue. In the autumn of 1904 the Swedish Prime Minister, Erik Gustav Boström, torpedoed all the hopes. He stated that the Swedish negotiators had gone too far, and he interpreted the declaration in a way that underlined Swedish supremacy in the union. This interpretation was later called the Swedish “points of protectorate” (“lydrikepunktene”). This demonstration of power ignited a patriotism that can only be explained by reference to that which I call national identification. Even those hitherto friendly towards the union reacted violently.

WHEN THE QUESTION of Norway’s secession was put to a referendum on August the 13th 1905, 386 208 people voted in favor, and just 184 against. Since the participation in this referendum was on more than 80 % a, a majority of men from the lower classes, also as members of the advancing Labour movement, necessarily joined this national manifestation. At the same time more than 250 000 women, who still had no right to vote, signed a petition where they gave support to the dissolution. The high level of participation in the referendum and the broad unanimity achieved, confirmed that the state and nation had merged in the direction of a “symbiosis” despite the fact that as soon as independence had been won, new differences quickly arose, particularly between socialist and bourgeois parties. 

TO SUMMARIZE, it was due to the sharpened conflicts with Sweden, mainly on demands for a separate Norwegian consular service that the popular movement in the 1890´s realized how the constitution generally gave too much power to the king. He also vetoed this reform, and by doing so he acted according to the written constitution that allowed him to decide, of course, without being held responsible by the parliament. In the political situation that occurred in 1905 the full responsibility de facto was transferred to the government, who could be held responsible by the parliament. In 1908 the same principle was incorporated into the written constitution. After having established this primacy on governmental matters leading politicians from all parties could accept parliamentary government as a political norm. I must underline that it is a historical paradox that the progressive democratization driven forward in the years up to 1905 was closely linked to a reactionary kind of nationalism. 

The third stage

SEEN IN A BROAD PERSPECTIVE, the last stage until the 1932 was a legal adjustment to hegemonic political norms. In 1918 the necessity of acceptance of vote of no confidence by the government was for the first time explicitly regarded as customary constitutional law. Frede Castberg, one of the most prominent experts on constitutional matters, argued for the acceptance. His arguments were similar to those used by Knut Berlin, a Danish colleague, a year earlier. Nevertheless in Norway it took almost ten years until the principles of customary constitutional law were generally accepted and with that the main principle of parliamentary government also was practiced and accepted as legal norm.  

AMONG POLITICAL PARTIES decisive steps were taken in the late twenties. After having oriented the party ideology during First World War, towards communism, the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) during the years after 1923 found its platform among the national parties. In 1923 the party broke with “Komintern”. The elections in 1927 gave way for the first Labour Party based government in Norway. After two weeks, this government, the first at any time in this country, resigned for a vote of no confidence. Few years later the party also joined national manifestations using the Norwegian flag when the Constitutional day was celebrated. The former communists accepted parliamentary democracy and regarded themselves as members of the nation. 

ALMOST SIMULTANEOUSLY, from 1927 to 1929, a parliamentarian committee prepared a new law on constitutional accountability. In this draft it became presupposed that condemnation by impeachment would be the adequate form of reaction if the members of a government denied a resignation after a vote of no confidence. Ever since this presumption has been a main source for experts arguing that this norm is part of Norwegian customary constitutional law.  Even to day it remains to bring it into the written constitution. 

THE PRESENT POLITICAL SYSTEM in Norway consists to a large extent of political practice, ordinary laws and customary laws. The written constitution itself gives a more accurate picture of the system of government in the 19th century than that of today. As a consequence that constitution is a symbol of the same order as the flag: a pure national symbol, and as such a delivery from the past.  

What will happen in the future?

THE DEBATE on whether Norway should join the EU enables one to test the strength of nationalism and traditional democratic norms today. These questions were raised during the first referendum in 1972, when the majority also voted against membership of the EC, as it was named at that time. The opposition comprised a broad alliance. Some indeed thought along nationalist lines, believing that Norway should be kept for Norwegians and that Norwegian culture should be protected behind closed curtains. They were not many.  

ANOTHER GROUP was mostly concerned with democracy and the distance to where decisions would be made (“Brussels is further away than Oslo”); democracy was felt to work better within small units. Groups of urban radicals wanted as much as possible to maintain national controls over capital. National symbols were also used, and symbols occasionally played on many levels. This was the case with the badge “No to the sale of Norway”, with the flag in the background. But the bulk of the opposition comprised people concerned with preserving their livelihood.   

AS THE QUESTION OF MEMBERSHIP reopened in 1994, protectionists once again dominated the opposition to the EU, demanding the protection of agriculture, fisheries, and North Sea oil resources. Many skeptics also revived the democracy argument. As in 1972, opposition embraced an unspecified “fear of the unknown” in addition to the motivations just mentioned; no one knew what EU membership entailed, much less what the union would look like in the future. Such an amorphous threat could mean that many seek a mental “reinforcement” in the use of national symbols. One of the country’s leading handicrafts stores, at Bø in Telemark, reported that the sale of traditional costumes rose in advance of the referendum of 1972, and that the same was happening in 1994. 

IT IS STILL AN OPEN QUESTION whether national identification is so strong that it can again transform itself into nationalism, as in 1905. We will have a new opportunity to address this question when the elite again in a near future occasion seek to maneuver Norway into EU. The answer is probably no, because large parts of the political elite have long practiced a kind of national deconstruction – to turn Rokkan’s concept on its head – with the intention of clearing the way for Norwegian membership of the EU. Leading politicians, especially within the Labour Party and the Right Party, have in recent years spread the idea that fewer and fewer problems can be solved within the framework of the nation-state. At the same time Norway, like many other countries, has undergone a cultural assimilation that crosses national frontiers. Perhaps the historians of the future will write about not only the rise of the Norwegian nation-state, but also of its breakdown. It is still an open question whether the further steps towards European integration will revoke national feeling in many countries, and Norway as well.




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