Trip to Tromsø

For those of you who are wondering, the ø in Tromsø means that it’s pronounced more like Tromsa than Tromso. While Tromsø is not as far North as Svalbard, Tromsø is Norway’s northernmost town and boasts a population of roughly 70,000. It’s the biggest town in Northern Norway (and I believe the only place in Northern Norway that can technically claim the title of town) and, to my surprise, is pretty much shut off from the rest of Norway. The train system in Norway doesn’t go much further than Bodø, where Alix and I went for part of our trip to the Lofoten Islands. As far as I can tell, the only really ways in which Northern Norway is connected to the rest of the country is by car, boat, specifically the Hurtigruten ferry, and by plane.

I’ve been interested in visiting Tromsø for a while but I decided to plan my trip in early February so that I would be able to attend Tromsø’s Sami Week. The Sami are the indigenous people in Northern Scandinavia, specifically Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula (part of Russia). To make matters more complicated, there are different kinds of Sami, and they have different rights and living situations depending on where they live. In Norway, the Sami are well known as reindeer herders and to this day reindeer are an essential part of their culture. Sami have a much stronger presence in Northern Norway than they do in Southern Norway and they even have their own capital, Karasjok, and parliament in Northern Norway. That is not to say that everything is rainbows and butterflies. The Sami have historically experienced a good amount of discrimination in Norway, and this discrimination continues to the present day. According to recent a survey, the Sami experience ten times more discrimination than ethnic Norwegians (United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe). Other obstacles the Sami face include the loss of their native languages and issues surrounding land rights.

Tromsø’s Sami Week coincides with Sami People’s Day, or the Sami national day, on February 6th. This date marks the meeting of the first Sami Congress in 1917 in Trondheim. Why Sami Week is not so well celebrated in Trondheim or even in Trondheim remains a mystery to me. Anyways, Sami People’s Day has grown into a week long celebration in Tromsø and consists of things such as a lasso throwing competition, winter market, cultural events, and reindeer races. Yes, reindeer races are a real thing. In fact, the races were the main reason I was in Tromsø.

Lucky for me, flights from Trondheim to Tromsø are pretty short and easy to catch. My hope was that I’d be able to see the northern lights in my time above the clouds, but unfortunately the sun was up for the duration of my flight. Once we descended however it was a completely different story. I was greeted with snow.

Thankfully the Fulbrighter that I was staying with, Kari, gave me very detailed instructions on how to get to her place, and it didn’t take me too long to find the correct bus into Tromsø. Once I arrived, I was pretty happy to settle in for the night and to curl up with my chosen post-Svalbard reading: The Golden Compass. I’m proud to say that I got unreasonably excited over the Svalbard sections of the book and of  my ability to identify terms such as sysselmann, or governor.

British Parliament

I was back at Byåsen this week and helping with my favorite British social studies class. I talked to my co-teacher Maria earlier this week and she enthusiastically told me that our students were learning more about British Parliament and how the political system works. She asked me if I’d be willing to pull small groups of students out during class and talk to them about Britain’s Parliament. This sounded like a good idea to me…until I got to some of the discussion questions she had proposed. While some of the questions were on the easier side (What is a coalition government? What are the pros and cons of Norway’s system of proportional representation? What do students think about a two party system?) some of the others stumped me (Compare and contrast the House of Commons and the House of Lords. How are laws passed?). I began to feel a bit embarrassed for a number of reasons:

  1. I’m British on my dad’s side so I should in fact know how the British government works
  2. I did my undergrad on British history

In my defense, I never actually learned very much about the structure of the British political system when doing my undergraduate degree. I’m much more competent when it comes to talking about the rise and fall of political parties or certain noteworthy prime ministers than I am at actually talking about how these people and political parties passed laws.

Anyways, it was clear that I need to bulk up on my knowledge of British politics and clear away some of my ignorance. I duly set to work and played “God Save the Queen” in the background to make me feel slightly better about myself (this also means that I now know some of the lyrics beyond “God save the Queen”). So, here are the more important bits of what I learned:

What is the House of Commons?

The House of Commons is the lower house of Parliament and consists of 650 elected members, or Members of Parliament (MPs). Each constituency in the UK is allowed to have one MP and each MP wins their election by having the most votes, not by having the majority of the vote. So an MP could win with say 25% of the vote as long as the MP still had more votes than any other candidate. This voting system is known as first past the post.

What is the House of Lords?

The House of Lords currently has 760 members and is composed of hereditary members, archbishops and bishops, and life peers. The House of Lords Act 1999 ended the right of most hereditary members to sit in the House of Lords and there are currently only 92 hereditary members. Archbishops and bishops are senior members of the Church of England, and then there are life peers. Life peers represent the majority of the House of Lords at around 700 members. Life peers are, as the title implies, people who are elected to the House of Lords for life. They are nominated to the House of Lords and are oftentimes experts in their fields. The reason why so many of the current members are experts is so that its members can contribute relevant information on the topics being debated and discussed. The modern day concept of the House of Lords is that it should act as an independent advisory body of government. The composition of the House of Lords is also supposed to keep it less political. There are a significant number of peers who do not support a political party.

How are laws made?

If you prefer the written version of the video essentially what happens is this:

  1. A proposal for a law, or a green paper, is published.
  2. The green paper is open for discussion and consultation from interested parties and groups.
  3. A white paper is published which puts together the feedback that the green paper has received and gives a better outline of a proposed law or policy.
  4. Cabinet ministers vote on whether or not the proposal should continue.
  5. The bill is presented to one of the Houses of Parliament.
  6. If the bill is looked upon favorably, a committee of knowledgeable members is formed to read through the bill line by line and edit the bill. It then goes through several stages of debate and editing.
  7. Once the bill is approved it goes to the other House of Parliament where the same process is repeated (introduced, discussed and debated, looked at in detail, potentially amended, voted upon).
  8. The bill goes back and forth between the two Houses until both Houses agree upon the final language of the bill.
  9. If the Houses are unable to come to an agreement, the House of Commons can still pass the bill without the House of Lords. Usually both Houses come to an agreement.
  10. The monarch gives royal assent and the bill officially becomes a law.

So, having beefed up my knowledge with the help of Parliament’s website, YouTube, and Google I strode into class on Thursday confident that I would be able to actually have an intelligent discussion about Britain’s political system.

I spent about half of my time asking my students if they could explain how Britain’s Parliament worked, and then had a more informal discussion after that. Here are the questions I asked my groups and their most common responses:

What are your thoughts on the House of Lords?

Most of my students were not huge fans of the House of Lords. They preferred the House of Commons because its members were democratically elected. Even for the students that did like the modern idea of the House of Lords, those students still disliked the hereditary peers and peers from the Church of England.

What political party would you be a member of/vote for?

Most of my students said that they would be Liberal Democrats, thinking that it offered the best of the Conservatives and the Labour Party. I did have one brave student who said that he would probably be a member of the Pirate Party, so kudos to him. Yes, the Pirate Party is a real thing.

Most of my students dislike the fact that there are only three major political parties in the UK. In Norway, the number of sizable political parties is closer to eight, thus many different parties have seats in Parliament.

Would you prefer to vote for a political party or for an individual?

I realize that this may seem like a silly question, but in Norway people vote for a political party as opposed to a particular politician. Many of my students prefer this system, thinking that the party has better knowledge as to who would make the best MPs. They also thought that systems in which you vote for a particular individual are more likely to allow for that individual to abuse their power or break their campaign promises.

Why do you think more people vote in Norway as opposed to places like the UK and the US?

I got a variety of answers to this question but there were four answers that I got repeatedly

  1. Norway is a small country; therefore, people feel as though their vote matters much more.
  2. Norway is a small country; therefore, people are more likely to actually know or be acquainted with their MP and are thus more invested in politics and voting.
  3. Norway’s system of proportional representation encourages voting. Essentially, the number of votes each party gets determines the number of seats each party has in Parliament, thus people feel as though their vote actually matters.
  4. There are more political parties to choose from; therefore, it is easier to find a political party that you agree or identify with

I personally had a lot of fun on Thursday and really enjoyed the lesson and getting to learn a bit more about both British and Norwegian politics. Looking forward to the next class!