How can one describe - so that others may understand it
- the Norwegian monarchy of today? How can one explain that a modern state
can maintain such an "antiquated" system? In attempting to find
an answer we must turn to history, because traditions - as they are
learned and perceived - create attitudes, which in turn lead to actions.
However, it is the current system we are dealing with
here, and not primarily the events leading up to it.
By Thomas Chr. Wyller
A natural starting point is an elementary rundown of
certain main points.
We shall only briefly touch upon the many centuries from
the state's unification, through the Middle Ages, and up to 1814. More
important milestones are the secession from Denmark in 1814, and the
dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905. Perhaps the most important
period was that following Norway's total independence in 1905. The events
of WWII were also highly significant while the fifty subsequent years
illustrate tradition in practice. I intend to pursue a number of these
The major consequence of the assembly of representatives
at Eidsvoll in 1814 was the brief national autonomy which laid the
foundation for a lasting constitution with national political
institutions. In the same year the newly-won independence was replaced by
a union with Sweden. The new political system, - with necessary
modifications - was retained.
In the total political process which took place during
this remarkable year, the monarchy itself was never under dispute. But
both during the period of independence and the dissolution of the union
with Sweden one important principle was defined: the Constitution stood
above the king. It was this that was first adopted; the choice of a king
This provided the system with an ideological basis which
it has subsequently retained. It was rooted neither in an existing
nobility nor a divinity. It was adopted by representatives of the people,
and thus gained legitimacy - also by the standards of the time. The manner
in which this somewhat diffuse term, legitimacy, was to be given
substance, and the monarchy provided with a deeper rooting, was a core
issue during subsequent decades.
These decades were characterized by a major, complex and
lengthy struggle between the king in the union, who was supported by
Sweden, and the Norwegian national assembly, the Storting. The conflict
revolved around the right to define the system's centre of gravity , with
regard to practical politics. This discord ran parallel to purely
nationally-based antagonisms between the two partners to the union.
Furthermore, it must be viewed in connection with the democratization
taking place in Norway, with the emergence of political parties, an
expanded franchise, and the adoption of the parliamentary system in 1884.
In this context the key events were the entry into the political arena of
the farmers, the workers, and later women - and the influence they exerted
It is part and parcel of this historical outline that the
actual form of the monarchy, the institution itself, was a theme of
conflict decidedly subordinate to its content. The outcome of the discord
was a resounding victory for the national assembly. And the essence of
this triumph was precisely that the slightest element of genuine and
personal, kingly power was eliminated, as far back as in 1884 and even
more clearly after 1905. With its famous resolution of 7 June 1905 the
Storting unilaterally deposed the union king. But it did more than that,
by firmly placing the monarchy within a wider framework. The deed that
gave the deathblow to kingly power, also gave the monarchy greater
A few more words on the events of 1905 will add greater
depth. The Storting dissolved the union and deposed the king, though
without mentioning the monarchy. The government's next move was to ask the
king to let a Swedish prince ascend the vacant throne of Norway. This was
a subtle tactical move, though it could scarcely be called
anti-monarchical. In a referendum in August the Norwegian people pledged
almost unanimous support to the resolution, without expressing any
negative attitudes towards the form of government. Not until the autumn
did it transpire that strong republican under-currents existed after all.
Real conflict arose regarding the form of government that was to be
chosen: a republic or a monarchy. This was resolved through yet another
referendum, which was partly bungled via government tactics and
plebiscitary elements. But despite a significant republican minority, the
outcome was never in doubt.
Therefore, the year 1905 marked in Norwegian history the
dissolution of a union and the deposal of a king, but the preservation of
a system of government.
What makes it even more remarkable is that for many
decades the nation had struggled against Sweden and the power of the king.
Norway's political leaders - backed up by their voters - demonstrated a
rather astonishing political maturity in their ability to distinguish
between the system and the person. In addition, the republicans showed a
truly democratic attitude by loyally deferring to the will of the
majority. It is actions like this that promote acceptance of the system.
The new monarchy, like the old, was hereditary, this too
underlining continuity. But its new progenitor was selected by the
Storting. This emphasizes a possibly even stronger line. For there was no
shadow of doubt that the constitutional monarchy of 1905 was built on a
The period from 1905 and to the present day can be
regarded as a continuous consolidation of the status that was originally
established. The monarchy is legally rooted in the first section of the
Norwegian Constitution, where Norway is defined as "a Kingdom "
with a "limited and hereditary monarchy". This means that the
monarchy can only be abolished by law, through an amendment to the
Constitution. A proposal to this effect has long been in existence and is
regularly tabled in the Storting. But this has become virtually a
compulsory exercise on the part of the republicans - and is scarcely taken
seriously - even by them.
On this point the reports of the Storting make pathetic
reading. But they do illuminate one point in addition to the monarchy's
traditional hold on even the avowed republicans. They reveal how
intimately the constitutional monarchy has been woven into and become a
part of the political democracy . "The democratic monarchy" is
by definition self-contradictory. But the world of real politics ignores
such linguistic paradoxes. Other things count more.
The legal basis of our form of government has long been
far removed from topical interest: it does not constitute a political
theme. When the wording of the Constitution still establishes that the
executive power lies with the king, almost every schoolchild is aware that
this means the king in Council, which again means the Government. And when
it is stated that the king chooses his Council, more than 100 years of
constitutional common law have demonstrated that it is the Storting,
through parliamentary procedures, that makes this choice. To make doubly
sure, the Constitution states that the king's decisions must be
countersigned in order to be valid, and that the responsibility for this
rests not with him, but with his Council.
Norwegian democracy still gives no leeway for the
exercising of personal, royal power. In a democratic monarchy the emphasis
is on the Constitution, not on the monarch. Democracy can do without him,
but not without the Constitution.
Nevertheless, the function of the monarch in this system is
many-sided. In situations where he has no real or formal power, he can
still exert influence. Though he makes no decisions, his pronouncements
may still carry weight. Whatever he wishes to leave unchanged, he can
preserve through tradition. Every system of monarchy contains loopholes;
these can be exploited by the monarch - in accordance with his
capabilities and wishes.
In this perspective the requirements to the monarchy, and
the attitudes of the monarch become one and the same. Or, one could say
that the function of the system is dependent upon the practice of the
role. "The King" is synonymous with the government. But the
institution is shaped by the person, by the king, not the King.
"Royal research" is a neglected field in Norway.
But the main pattern can be outlined. This is apparent in three different
situations, historically and contemporarily: in everyday life, at changes
of government, and during national crises.
The day-to-day role of the head of state in a modern
monarchy is primarily of a symbolic nature. He represents his state and
people. He is the master of ceremonies par excellence. He is above the
people in rank and dignity, and has neither the right to vote nor
obligation to pay taxes. The fact that he chooses his personal
acquaintances from a narrow social circle does not weaken this image. The
Norwegian system does not allow a politicking "court".
Thus, the mission of the monarch is to fulfil everyday
assignments. When a government rules, the king provides the necessary
endorsements. When he addresses Norwegians at sea, makes a declaration on
the status of the realm at New Year, he is the king of our childhood fairy
tales, the father of his people, regardless of whether he speaks Danish or
Norwegian. The king has been given his due: from a political viewpoint he
is the powerless head of a democratic state. But the people have also been
given their due.
There have been times - also in every-day life - when a
king has tried to exceed the bounds of what is personal, acceptable
influence. This occurred just after 1905, and rather more dramatically in
1913, when the threat of abdication was imminent. But such events serve
only to prove the main rule: the subordination of the monarch to the
political leaders of the state system.
On the other hand changes of government are potential "kingly"
situations. The king's normal function at such times is to effect the
transition from loser to victor. But if the parliamentary succession is
not clear, he must exercise his own judgement. At such times his actions
have a political content. The cardinal example of this is King Håkon
VII in 1928, who appointed - against the advice of the outgoing government
- the first Labour Party government. This action doubtless contributed
towards an alteration of this party's basic anti-monarchical line.
Situations like this enforce upon the king the role of a
political participant. With numerous small parties and continued minority
governments, several fragile political constellations may appear in the
future. These serve to illustrate the interdependence of system and
National crises are less frequent. In these the king can
scarcely avoid a central role. During the war and the occupation King Håkon's
role was diverse; as a participant in continuing processes, and as a
symbol of national unity. His resounding "No" to the
German/Quisling demands on 10 April 1940 stands sharply illuminated in the
history of the monarchy and the country. His statement to the government
was: "The decision is yours. But if you choose to accept the German
demands, I must abdicate. For I cannot appoint Quisling as prime minister".
No stronger words of counsel have ever been given by a Norwegian monarch
to his "advisers". One is tempted to make a bombastic statement:
In Nybergsund - where the king pronounced these words - the personal power
of the monarchy was revived, if only for a few dramatic hours.
After this came the long years of WWII. From its exile
existence in London the government represented the power of the Norwegian
state, but with no Storting at its side. It attended as far as possible to
national interests. But it was the king - this time with a small k, who
symbolized the nation. In this manner he also played his part in elevating
the institution of monarchy even more - almost from the terrestrial world
where it belongs, to the celestial, where the eternal things abide.
With the liberation in 1945 the last elements in this
development were cemented into place. The transition to a reconstructed
political system was a painless one, surprisingly painless given the
preceding five years of turbulence. But the most automatic process of all
was the resumption of the functions of the monarch and the monarchy. Even
the communists - a powerful group in Norway at that time - joined in the
overwhelming reception which was accorded to King Håkon when he
returned to Norway. They knew, with a sure fingertip feeling that to do
otherwise would be political suicide.
Olav V carried on the line from 1957. His father was a
wartime hero, but was by no means "folksy"; it was Olav who
became "the people's king": the skier, sailor and citizen who
bought his own tram ticket during oil crisis of the early 1970s. Neither
government problems nor national crises put the system to new tests;
everyday problems were--as far as we know--resolved without friction.
Harald V, who ascended the throne in 1991, has a great heritage to
administer. It is not an easy task. But he can follow floodlit tracks laid
on solid ground.
Certain aspects have been added to the old image. The most
important is that gender equality has reached Parnassus: a 1990
constitutional amendment also gives women the right to inherit the throne.
Moreover, a queen is now filling the position in the Royal Family that
stood vacant for over 50 years; she symbolizes the family while also
fulfilling important representative functions. The democratization of the
monarchy has increased some, not least via the queen's "commoner"
origins, but also via the media's general curiosity about the private
lives of the Royal Family, the cost of remodelling the Palace and hints of
a new balance in the monarchy's relationship to private enterprise. The
personal opinions of the Crown Prince, the coming head of state, are
interesting. Are they a sign of coming nuances in his understanding of his
So there are some new directions, but nothing so far that
would indicate a break with the continuity which for almost a century has
characterized the Norwegian monarchy. It rests on a legal basis: in both
the written and the unwritten constitution. It has a political anchorage;
in that the state system is elevated above the day-to-day political
struggle. But neither of these anchorages would prove safe in a storm
without additional security. This is found in the legitimacy that the
monarchy has gained among the people.
This is perhaps a rather elusive term. But it represents
the attitude of the people towards the system, the acceptance of the
system's representatives by those they represent, the hopes the people
invest in those who fill the various roles, and the manner in which these
expectations are met.
This in not the place for panegyrics, but for plain
analysis; an analysis which includes the fact that in all respects its
legitimacy has been built up by the three monarchs who in modern times
have filled the role of head of state. They have enjoyed--and probably had
use for--insightful "advisers", but the motto: "Alt for
Norge" (All for Norway) has been put into practice as consistent,
democratic loyalty towards the system. Therefore, an account like this
rests on two pillars: upon the system and upon the men who have given it
form. The one can only be understood by way of the other.
All the same, one may well ask, and in other countries the
question is often posed, how a modern state can still retain a form of
government that in a world perspective belongs in a museum? There is only
partial substance in this question. A form of government which has
functioned for so long is only antiquated in the eyes of those who do not
understand it. But if it is taken seriously, the answer is implicit in
what I have said. This form of government has not been any impediment to
the development of a modern society and to the nation's political
possibility of choosing its own path. Conditions have been favourable for
the growth of democracy. The monarchy has been a framework, not a brake.
It has undergone a process of democratization of at least the same
magnitude as the "monarchization" of the democracy.
However, a specific form of government does not only
survive because it does not apply the brakes. Has the monarchy functioned
in a democratically functional way?. What have been the positive effects
of maintaining an outer framework which may seem old fashioned?. This is a
natural point at which to emphasize how the division at the top of the
system is limited both politically and functionally. Therefore the
position of head of State is elevated above conflict, but that of head of
government implies power, and is therefore controversial. The normal
democratic conflicts of groups and political parties follow their usual
course. The traditions that are a part of the form of government
automatically channel them in the right direction, in keeping with their
goals of jockeying for a favourable position. But at the very top, far
from all sounds of strife, some element, at least, in this quarrelsome
people, has been neutralized, subdued and made sacrosanct.
It is at this level that the monarch can play the role of
father, of the king in fairy tales, who fulfils our common need for
fantasies and also for identification. He can symbolize unity in the midst
of political confusion, be the focal point, far removed from sector
interests. This is of course a mystical, indeed a mythical thing and to
modern eyes undoubtedly a relic of the past. But how blind are those who
have completely lost their sense of the irrational! Is the monarchy,
perhaps, a purely conservative element - linked as it is to the church, to
the military, to the solid pillars of the establishment ? Certainly it is.
But no more so than any other system which is loyally adhered to. It has
never been reactionary and is still not so. Other factors have shaped our
society: technology and industrialization, primary and secondary
industries, oil in the North Sea and security policy; the monarchical
system of government has served neither as a brake nor a locomotive force.
Much of this was illustrated on the death of King Olav V.
The peoples' grief was genuine. It was not just sadness at the passing of
an old man, but personal sorrow at the loss of one who was dear to many.
Some might consider the myriad flickering candles which the people lit
before the Royal Palace in Oslo to be pathetic and oversentimental. But
did they not have a deeper import: genuine emotion, in an age when
feelings are often bargain price goods at a sale?
But there is more to come. In many countries which are
perhaps more modern than Norway - the head of State is replaced following
an election, a coup d'état, a revolution. Not infrequently there
This is not the case in Norway. Calmly and peacefully the
power - though not the role of the second-in-command - is passed on. The
system is in no way affected, possibly quite the opposite.
The overall significance of the monarchy is not easy to
describe. The personal role of the monarch is equally difficult to
Only if the monarchy were to fall would its full
significance be clearly revealed.
The author, Thomas Chr. Wyller, is professor emeritus
of political science at the University of Oslo. He has written a number of
books and actively participates in political debates.
Produced by Nytt fra Norge for the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs. The author is responsible for the contents of the article.
Reproduction permitted. Printed in September 1998.