Wednesday, 10 March 2010

New books: The rise and fall of Lars Sponheim

A month before the release of the authorised biography of Lars Sponheim, the outgoing leader of the Liberal Party, Olav Garvik and Olav Kobbeltveit last week published their unauthorised version, titled Sponheim uautorisert (“Sponheim Unauthorised”, a title which works in English but not quite in Norwegian).
Lars Sponheim was the man who managed to “resurrect” the Liberal Party, the oldest political party in Norway, when he was elected to Parliament in 1993; eight years after the party had fallen out of the national assembly. He ousted Odd Einar Dørum as leader of the party in 1996 and became a cabinet minister in both the Bondevik governments (1997-2000 and 2001-2005). Known for his outspokenness and inflated ego, Sponheim hit the iceberg in last year’s general election, when he lost his own seat in Parliament and the party fell below the election threshold of 4 %, leaving it with only two seats. In what was perhaps the greatest drama of the election, Sponheim announced his resignation as leader of the party that very night.
The authors of the unauthorised biography are journalists at Bergens Tidende, a newspaper located in the county of Hordaland, which Sponheim represented in Parliament, and a newspaper which apparently has close political and personal ties to the Liberal Party and Sponheim himself. This is an obvious strength as the authors chart how he won a parliamentary seat in 1993, but occasionally one feels that their own newspaper takes too much space in this book, often in a rather self-righteous way.
The authors obviously have a love of metaphors and have made no attempt to restrict the use of them. Only rarely do they achieve such elegance as when they write about the conflicts between Sponheim and his lightweight deputy leader Olaf Thommessen that elephants do not allow themselves to be distracted by horse flies.
In the journalistic manner the book seems to be based mostly on oral interviews and they might sometimes have attempted to do more research. When the Liberal Party is left with two seats in Parliament following the 2001 election, but gets three governmental positions, the authors ask if there are earlier examples of a party having more ministers than MPs. Their “answer” is: “Maybe. Maybe not”. One wonders if they have even bothered trying to find out.
The most interesting new material in this book is the extensive use of the minutes from the negotiations between the Christian People’s Party, the Centre Party and the Liberal Party which led to the formation of the historic so-called “Centre Government” in 1997. This reveals a great deal about what went on beyond the scenes. As some of his colleagues in this and Kjell Magne Bondevik’s second government apparently feel free to be almost as outspoken as Sponheim himself is (in)famous for being, we also learn quite a few things about the inner life of the two cabinets.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that it stresses the close friendship and co-operation between Sponheim and Bondevik. It appears to be true that Sponheim was quite close to the truth when he referred to himself and his party as “the glue” in the coalition government.
The constructive role played by Sponheim as a minister stands in sharp contrast to the portrayal of the authoritarian and in fact quite destructive party leader, who apparently preferred to rule the Liberal Party as an enlightened despot. The authors see Sponheim’s difficulties in cooperating with the rest of the parliamentary group as a legacy of the four years when he made up that group alone. All in all it is a rather unsympathetic portrait of Sponheim which is painted, yet this will be easily recognisable to many of those who have observed him over time.

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