Erna Solberg is a rarity. A Conservative prime minister is almost unheard of in Norway: the party has only governed the Scandinavian nation for about six years since the end of the Second World War. Labour has been in power for all but 18 of the past 70 years. In such a staunchly committed social-democratic country, Solberg’s Conservatives struggled to be heard as long as the party trumpeted traditional values such as privatisation, tax cuts and less state interference.
After being elected as party leader in 2004 it took her nine years in opposition to convince Norwegians it was time to swing to the right. A year of what insiders called “Project Prime Minister” saw her crisscrossing the nation, trying to persuade everyone from fishermen in the Arctic north to oil tycoons in the affluent south-west that the time for a Conservative leader was now.
As far as most people are concerned, the changes have been subtle since she gained power in 2013. Norway might be a country of dramatic scenery and great natural contrasts but it can be hard to spot major differences between political right and left. Solberg maintains she is taking the country in a new direction however, cutting taxes for businesses and increasing investment in research and education. Such moves may be crucial for her future vision of the country. Over the past 40 years Norway has grown immensely rich on North Sea oil and gas but plummeting oil prices, falling production and a desire to be a leader in the fight against climate change means the country needs to do some serious thinking about its future.
Monocle: What will Norway live off when the oil runs out?
Erna Solberg: We’re going to have an oil-and-gas industry for a long time but when you are developing a non-renewable natural resource it will one day diminish. We are investing in making Norway more secure for the future: it’s about research and development, education; making sure we make better connections between academia and business.
M: Can one of the globe’s largest oil exporters lead the fight against climate change?
ES: What we call the “new normal” in Norway – having to rely more on new industries and smaller to medium-sized businesses – is a turn towards a greener Norwegian economy. It will, of course, be more challenging for an oil and gas producing country to meet the targets that we have set for climate cuts.
M: You’re pro-EU but Norwegians have voted against it twice. Do you see Norway as a member in your lifetime?
ES: Since my grandmother lived until she was nearly 103, I can’t say I don’t believe it because I would be underestimating my genes! When we change from being less oil dependent our economy will become more like other European nations’ and the benefits of being a member will look much better.
M: Is it frustrating not to sit at the table in Brussels when Norway, as a European Economic Area member, must follow the EU’s rules?
ES: Yes, that is always frustrating. You see solutions that are not optimal for Norway because of our scarcely populated areas and our type of economy.
M: Norway shares a border with Russia. Are you concerned about Vladimir Putin?
ES: I think it’s very troublesome to look at what has been happening over several years in Russia. Of course the climax has been the annexation of Crimea and their participation in military activities in the eastern parts of Ukraine. We have said we need to speak to Russia, we need to develop together; we have marine resources that we are jointly harvesting. Since the fall of the Wall we have been working on the assumption that we are all striving towards liberal ideas: democracy, a free-market economy and respect for international law. And of course that’s not the path that we see Russia walking now.
M: Closer to home, how has Norway changed as a result of the 22 July 2011 terror attacks and recent Islamist terror threats?
ES: We have not answered with less democracy: we have had more openness. We’ve increased our investment in security, following radical groups both on the Islamist/Jihadist side and right-wing movements. We know that they are feeding off each other. But we also work a lot with local grassroots, getting community groups to work with parents and schools to stop the type of radicalisation and misinterpretation that we see both from right-wing groups and Jihadist movements.
M: Norway is a leader on gender equality. You’re the country’s second female prime minister. Why haven’t there been more?
ES: Well there aren’t many countries that have had a second female prime minister. I was the second female leader of my party, too. It shows that there is a maturity in our society that accepts women as being equally as good leaders as men.
M: Are you happy with the state of gender equality in Norway today?
ES: We still have some challenges. We have too few female ceos; women are still paid a bit less than men. But I think we have moved forward on other issues. We had this three-party meeting recently with people representing employees, employers and government. The confederation of trade unions is led by a woman, the employers’ union is led by a woman, the finance minister is a woman and the prime minister is a woman. I think this is a strong symbol of women’s position in Norway.