This essay follows on from the previous one relating how Iceland tackled and beat the Great Bank Heist – see footnote – its crooked bankers and politicians, Gordon Brown and the might of the corrupt British state. The text of this week’s essay describes how a small country with a small population, fewer than live in Scotland’s capital city, is a confident nation.
Iceland took its independence from Denmark in 1944 when Germany occupied Denmark. They saw what was happening in Europe and took their liberty in a landslide referendum. Unlike Scots, Icelanders reject colonialism – perhaps this has something to do with their Viking and Irish heritage. No one dare meddle with their republic.
Icelanders dislike any attempt to dislodge their Constitution, although after the collapse of key banks some tweaking is necessary. Their nationalism is civic and ethnic. They are highly sceptical of foreign control over anything Icelandic, probably the reason Iceland is not in the European Union.
Iceland is a member of a lot of E’s – EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, EEA, the European Economic Area, the Nordic Passport Union, and the EU’s Schengen as a non-voting participant. There is wisdom in that trading group, but Scotland has tended to relate more to European countries than Nordic, certainly from the 18th century.
Money wars and Cod Wars
Though the flags of the two nations are made up of the same colours, Icelandic suspicion of English imperialism survives just under the surface of every industrious islander. Iceland is robust about keeping control over its internal and foreign affairs. Dislike of English imperialism is so ingrained, so intense, that on a few occasions on my visit to that great land I found myself tempted to minimise England’s excesses when given a lecture on Iceland’s many confrontations with the UK and how it defeated imperialism.
Two days there I met with Anglophobia at a museum in the north. Discussing the nation’s great little football team beating England in the World Cup, (amateurs that drew over 30,000 supporters to travel to the game!), and Iceland sending Gordon Brown packing, tail between his legs, the museum’s curator reminded me of the protracted Cod Wars Iceland won. Nor is forgotten Alistair Darling lying to the British media about Iceland’s position on the run on its banks. While they welcome tourism from all nations, English arrogance is liable to get short shrift.
The Cod Wars were really territorial disputes, a series of confrontations between the UK and Iceland on fishing rights in the North Atlantic. A lot of times the war consisted of a frigate ‘bumping’ into a gunboat. Each of the disputes ended with an Icelandic victory. When Britain sent a big frigate to scare the Icelanders into submission Iceland threatened to pull out of NATO, removing the UK and US of a submarine route in the northern hemisphere. Stalemate.
The United Nations stepped in and created a 200 nautical mile exclusion zone, now standard international practice. Scotland be advised: there is great advantage controlling your nation’s sea waters and foreign affairs.
Living on rocky volcanic land formed only 16 to 18 million years ago, glaciers among mountains, pitch dark half the year, and sitting atop the North American and Eurasian plate, would cause any sensible human to get the hell out of there. But in Iceland’s case it also offers up a bounty in geothermal heating.
Icelandic folk got street smart, heating tarmacked roads for winter use as well as the hot water requirements of 87% of all buildings in Iceland. Apart from geothermal energy, 73.8% of the nation’s electricity is generated by hydro power, only 0.1% from fossil fuels.
Those parting tectonic plates are causing the island to grow year by year, with glacier melt adding new land, where not causing too great a shock for flora and fauna.
For lovers of trees that cleanse the air we breath, look elsewhere, dotted here and not there fir trees grow in half-acre clumps huddled together for protection. Loss of vegetation by wind erosion is a serious environmental problem. The Icelandic Soil Conservation Service must feel they fight a losing battle.
On the positive side of things, Iceland is a strong voice in the fight against the pollution of the oceans. The waters are among the cleanest in the world. On a coastal trip beaches harboured neat piles of bleached tree trunks collected from a shipwreck. Plastic waste was nowhere to be seen.
For anyone to claim Scotland, with all its resources and human skills, is unable to survive as an independent country, Iceland is the living antidote. The ‘too small, too poor’ jibe is a classic lie, calculated to keep colonies docile and humble. The best way for me to describe Iceland’s progressive politics and aspirations is to write about its current prime minister.
As prime minister and, at 42, Europe’s youngest female leader, Katrín Jakobsdóttir is Iceland’s fourth prime minister in two years. Her goal is uncompromising: to restore confidence in the executive. Her predecessors are all tainted by the bank crash and the Panama Papers. Icelandic politicians, like the UK, have a lot of skeletons in cupboards.
Rocked by a succession of ethical and financial scandals that left voters disaffected by what many saw as endemic and largely unpunished cronyism and corruption of their political and business classes, Jakobsdóttir hopes to rebuild trust in democratic rule. That ambition signifies she leans to the left. (The Right everywhere make corruption legal.)
Her job is made all the more difficult because she heads a coalition that includes two right-wing parties. When people lose confidence in democracy political parties are the first to be distrusted. The conservative Independence party has been part of nearly every Icelandic government since 1944, it and the centre-right Progressives.
In some policies she mirrors Nicola Sturgeon. She heads the Left-Green Movement and has bold policy goals on climate change, gender equality and public services. And again like the SNP founded by writers and intellectuals, she is a writer and academic, known in Iceland, like everyone else, by her first name.
Jakobsdóttir is tough as leather. She keeps in check Bjarni, her finance minister, and current Progressive party leader Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, her transport minister. Her majority is 35 MPs, a number the UK’s Tory party must look on with envy.
She, unsurprisingly, deploys diplomacy “I know them well” and “everything is going very smoothly”. But scandal-tainted or not, going into government with a pair of alpha-male conservative heavyweights is risky.
“I look at it pragmatically, not moralistically. I think, ‘We’re here now, we need to change the system, so we need everyone at the table.’ Not, ‘I’m not going to work with you because you did things I think are morally wrong.’ Codes of ethical conduct don’t work like normal legislation. They work because everyone sits down together and say, ‘We need to work rules out for ourselves.’ And then they need to look carefully at how well those rules have worked, which we’re now doing. I think the politics of this century are going to revolve a lot around left and right. It’s about people who can hardly live on their salaries, people’s rights … how people are treated. We’ve never had a greater need for equality.”
There is not a better example to Scottish unionists of a small country able to look after itself and take its place at the United Nations as an equal member.
Jakobsdóttir has a lot to be pleased about so far. With a reformed financial sector, growth of 4.9% last year, and unemployment down at just 2.5%, Iceland’s economy has bounced back strongly on the back of an unprecedented tourist boom. And tourism brings me to the last chapter in this essay.
It would be remiss if I didn’t offer a brief guide to readers who plan a visit. Iceland’s terrain is heaven on earth for back-packing adventurers. That isn’t quite the compliment it appears for it puts tourist facilities and services about twenty years behind our times.
If you don’t want to be an American or Japanese tourist taking guided tours everywhere, hire a stout vehicle. Never drive on pristine ground. Tyre mark and footprint survive for a century or more.
Two outstanding places to visit are the Whaling Museum in Húsavík and the Great Geyser in Haukadalur Valley, Southwest Iceland – geysa meaning to gush. A third is the island’s concert hall In Reykjavik approved for construction in 2007. The bank collapse of 2008 stopped it, but after lots of debate the people decided to complete the work – a community task. The Harpa Hall stands as a paean to the human spirit.
Everybody hoping to see a new country asks about the food. Don’t expect cuisine of French or Italian levels, or the choice available in Scottish cities.
Icelandic food is a mixture of influences with lots of Nordic fish dishes. Table service is amateur or grumpy. The best meal I had was in a Japanese sushi restaurant cooked by Icelandic chefs served by young helpers. Icelandic folk are friendly but not natural waiters. The good news is, restaurant staff are paid a living wage. Tipping is banned.
What’s it like?
Journey’s across the land are like nowhere else. Great rock strewn lava plains stretch left and right and can differ markedly in character, the surface of the moon on one side, terrain bright covered in orange and green moss on the other. In the far distance lie mountain ranges and glaciers.
Much of the greenest parts resemble Scotland – but a lot bigger, a lot! There are sheep on pasture slopes and lots of Icelandic ponies, but also mile upon mile of volcanic wasteland punctuated by lakes, waterfalls, and geysers. Iceland is a country still being shape shifted!
I left with any number of memorable images, an abandoned herring station in the far north, a car museum in the middle of nowhere devoted to vehicles used on Iceland, town and harbour streets as clean as an Andrex commercial.
In 1874 Denmark granted Iceland a constitution and home rule, expanded in 1904 to a fully sovereign state in 1918. Icelanders abolished the monarchy in 1944 when it took its full independence. Iceland is protected by its seas to an extent, not land-locked to an increasingly tyrannical neighbour keen to tighten its grip on civil and constitutional rights. They have no political party demanding reunification with Denmark. Danish is taught as a second language in schools. There’s a lesson there.
In 2014 Scotland was too uncertain of its own strengths to regain nationhood decisively. Some people based their ill-motivated judgement on rational calculation but in so many cases it was irrational belief. They saw safety where none exists. Now Scotland is faced by the painful, desperate result of timidity. No wonder Icelandic folk are incredulous. “You will regain independence”, said one woman, emphatically.
Denmark has an embassy in Iceland. I look forward to the day when England has an embassy in Scotland.