Letter from Westminster 10.10.08
A FEW days spent with our Norwegian cousins is always a good opportunity to get a different political perspective from that in London or Edinburgh. So a three-day trip to Norway as a guest of the Norwegian government was a welcome and useful opportunity to renew old acquaintances, meet new faces and get the Nordic take on world events.
Norway is no more immune from the vagaries of world events than the rest of us but right at the moment they do have quite a lot about which to feel pleased. Time spent with senior members of the Norwegian central bank offered a few insights into this. Having pursued a fairly cautious policy in recent years they are mildly amused and bemused to find themselves being offered “opportunities” by banks in the US and the UK to share in carrying some of the difficulties in which they find themselves. Not having pursued the risky money when the returns were good, they are now understandably reluctant to share the pain.
As ever, though, the truly fascinating conversation to be had with Norwegian bankers concerns their sovereign wealth fund and the way in which it is used both at home and abroad. This is the money that Norway as a nation has saved from their involvement in the oil and gas industry.
At home, the money is invested in capital projects such as roads and tunnels. On our first evening in Oslo we saw round the highly impressive new Opera House and it was explained that the busy dual carriageway which runs past it would be gone in a few years as the road was to be diverted and tunnelled through the mountain behind it. In this country you would have to expect the road to stay just where it was.
Much of the fund is invested in undertakings operating outside Norway and the ethical investment policy of the fund managers there is one of the strictest to be found anywhere in the world. If certain minimum standards of social and environmental practice are not met then the investment is not made – end of story. It was, as I discussed later with the deputy foreign minister, an approach which was only possible as a result of Norwegian foreign policy – a much more benign and enlightened one than that practiced by the UK.
This week it is back to Westminster as the house sits again after the long recess. The mood, curiously, is very different from that which one would have expected a few weeks ago. Labour MPs, despite still having a lag in the polls, are much more upbeat about their chances as they see Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling getting a grip on the economic problems facing us.
The package announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Wednesday is substantial and comprehensive. Time will tell whether it is sufficient to instil the necessary confidence among the banks to get the banking system working again. We have got to hope it will.
Alistair Carmichael MP