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Tuesday, 18 September, 2001, 15:35 GMT 16:35 UK
Viewpoint: Norway prospers gloomily
Oslo harbour
Oslo: Oil income put by for contingencies
As Norway's Conservative, Christian Democratic and Liberal parties open talks aimed at forming a new centre-right coalition government, Tony Samstag in Oslo gives a personal view of social problems in one of the world's richest countries.

For the better part of three decades, oil-rich Norway has loomed large in the numerous surveys - published by the OECD and similar arbiters of progress - as one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

Norway even enjoys the dubious distinction of the highest rate of broken bones in the world

Norwegian national income, gross domestic product per capita and similar economic indicators are almost always near the top of the international league tables.

The obvious conclusion is that the Norwegians are as happy as they are prosperous.

However, on the rare occasions that the cost of living is taken into account - the high prices, the tax burden, relative purchasing power - the results suggest that the average Norwegian has a lower standard of living than the average Italian or Spaniard, and certainly a lot less fun than either.

Crumbling services

The issue tends to arise whenever the government changes - a frequent occurrence given a proportional representation system straining to accommodate no fewer than eight established political parties, all competing for the votes of a mere 4.5 million citizens.

Labour Party leader Thorbjoern Jagland
The election was a setback for Thorbjoern Jagland's Labour Party
In this year's general election, on 10 September, the governing Labour Party suffered one of the worst results in its history. It won barely a quarter of the 165 seats in parliament, despite record levels of apparent affluence.

But reasons for this seeming contradiction are not hard to find.

In recent years, taxes have increased relentlessly. But public services - Norway's version of the famous, and famously expensive, Nordic welfare state - have crumbled.

The lives of most Norwegians are simple to a degree - and by government decree

Hospitals, schools and public transport are increasingly perceived as inadequate, if not downright dangerous.

Norway even enjoys the dubious distinction of the highest rate of broken bones in the world because local authorities cannot find the funding, or the organisation, to cope with icy pavements.

Limited choice

In the meantime, billions of dollars in rising oil revenues have been diverted to an offshore national investment fund to meet unspecified contingencies sometime in the indefinite future.

Norway is also burdened with legacies of religious fundamentalism and agrarianism which have left a substantial minority with an obsessive fear of public disorder and corrupting, "foreign" influences.

Wedding of Crown Prince Haakon
Royal wedding: Norwegian life centres around the family
The political system even supports the constitutional involvement of the Lutheran Church in affairs of state.

Notoriously restrictive alcohol policies, artificially high food prices and severe limitations on consumer choice are just a few of the more obvious consequences.

Despite their nominal wealth, then, the lives of most Norwegians are simple to a degree - and by government decree.

True, the grinding misery of poverty and unemployment afflicting so many in less favoured countries are largely absent - but so too is any real sense of opportunity.

Life perforce centres about the family, an institution no less shaky here than elsewhere in the developed world, and even those whose families endure, enjoy a lower quality of life than many of their middle-class counterparts among the warmer-blooded tribes of Europe.

The Norwegians themselves have a proverb: "We are always broke but never poor."

See also:

30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Norway
10 Sep 01 | Europe
Norway's political instability
11 Sep 01 | Europe
Norway poll sparks power struggle
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