King, eh? Should Norway abdicate its royalty?

08/11/2014 3:25 PM

08/11/2014 4:45 PM

Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon shocked and disappointed his nation this summer when he announced plans to take his youngest prince and princess out of public schools and send them to private ones in the coming school year.

In egalitarian Norway, the choice for the further education of 10-year-old Princess Ingrid Alexandra and 8-year-old Prince Sverre Magnus seemed a denunciation of the education of the rest of the children in this wealthy nation of only 5 million. But while a fuss over moving royals from classes with common children might seem a non-issue in the non-royal United States, it actually gets at a single question about much of the remaining royalty of Europe: Why?

The fact that this happened the same summer that Spanish King Juan Carlos, he and his family dogged by scandal, abdicated the throne, meant that once again, in a post-“divine right” world, Europeans were asking themselves exactly what is the point of having royalty these days. There was a pause, though brief, after the abdication when a few commentators and some politicians were wondering why Spain still has a royal family, before his son Felipe – Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos de Borbon y de Grecia – was soon named King Felipe VI, the new ruler of Spain.

Likewise, in Norway, where vast oil wealth has made many citizens feel as if they’re all born to privilege, opponents of a continuing royal tradition saw the minor scandal as a sign that their efforts might gain traction, someday.

As Norwegian journalist and author of a book on the local royalty Kjetil Bragli Alstadheim noted: “When Spain fails at soccer in the World Cup they get rid of the coach and start a worldwide search for his replacement. There would be a national, even an international, uproar if they just gave the job to the old coach’s child. They search because it matters, and they want the best person in the job.

“But when King Juan Carlos abdicates, after a bit of scandal, they turn to his son?”

He shook his head, but noted that the answer in Spain was what it would have been in Norway. European nations keep saying yes, turn to the kid.

Norwegian historian Finn Erhard Johannessen, from the University of Oslo, said supporting a royal family remained a source of pride in his nation but that there were limits.

“Norwegians like having a royal family,” he said. “But they don’t want them to act too royally.”

Polls indicate that about 4 of 5 Norwegians back the monarchy, though most of those essentially with a “why not?” instead of undying passion for the institution.

Johannessen said Norwegians thought their royals were nice people. Part of that is living like anyone else.

“People want the royal children to be in school with the children of immigrants,” he noted.

Anders Folkestad, the head of Norway’s teachers union, told local media that the move sends a bad message: “Does it say private schools are better than public? Must one go to an international school to learn English?”

This isn’t the first, or the most serious, threat to royalty in this land of Viking plunder and dramatic fjords. King Fairhair couldn’t convince the woman he loved that he was worthy until he unified the place by conquering a network of small kingdoms about 1100 years ago. In 1814, fearing war with the “great powers of Europe” and already at war with Sweden, Norwegians adopted a constitutional monarchy and actually elected the king of Sweden as the king of Norway.

During World War II, King Haakon VII famously said “for my part I cannot accept” Nazi occupation, and ended up in exile. (As is the case with sagas, there have since been questions on whether that’s the whole story, and assertions that he also negotiated a bit with those same Nazis.)

Then came the summer of 2014, the 200th anniversary of Norway’s Constitution. To understand just how important the issue of image is, consider that for 41 years Norway’s royal family has lived off a single moment, captured in a single set of photos.

In the photos, from 1973 during an oil crisis, then-King Olav V is riding a tram. In the best known of the photos, he’s handing a bill to a ticket taker, to pay his fare.

Which is the message that elevated his royal highness that day and kept his family in good graces ever since: The king is just a regular Norwegian. Ask 100 Norwegians of almost any age about their royal family and you’re likely to hear about the photo 100 times. (A few might not mention it, but others will mention it twice.) The king, they will go on, does regular Norwegian things and sacrifices in the same ways that all good Norwegians sacrifice. He even, they will point out, rides the tram.

“Well, at least once he rode a tram,” as the journalist Alstadheim noted. “He paid for his fare in cash. There’s no evidence he had an Oyster Card (monthly pass). Still, we remember those photos.”

For leading socialist Storting Chamber member (Norway’s parliament) Heikki Eidsvoll Holmas, that’s a shame. Every four years, his party puts together a new proposal on doing away with the monarchy, and every four years the Storting Chamber laughs it off and goes back to counting the nation’s oil and gas royalties.

This year, though, he thinks that the proposal they’re putting together to submit next year might be different. In July, just before leaving on the obligatory monthlong summer break for Norwegians, Holmas pointed to the walls of parliament and noted – rather optimistically – that with the portrait of the current king, Harald V, there’s room for only one more royal portrait on the walls of the cavernous building.

“Surely in my lifetime we will see an end to an inherited monarchy,” he predicted.

He acknowledged that Norway in practice has a royal figurehead, a family that officially rules the nation and must sign off on all legislation before it becomes law. Under the constitution, the king has much more power than that, Holmas said, “but he knows he can’t actually use it. He can’t actually refuse to support laws passed by the Storting. The people would be appalled.”

Holmas wants the royal figurehead replaced with an elected one, a president not unlike the president of Germany: a national leader for ceremonial purposes, while real power rests elsewhere.

He insisted that most of the people who work with him, if forced to tell the truth, would agree with him. Having a king these days, he noted, is kind of silly.

It might be, but so is this effort to remove them, said the historian Johannessen.

“The political debate on whether to keep the royal family has been quite dead,” he noted. “Cost isn’t an issue. If Norway wants a royal family, Norway can afford a royal family. For right now, they continue to want one.”

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