Defending the Welfare System

12.1.2007
Words by Steinunn Jakobsdóttir
Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, leader of political party the Leftist-Green Movement, recently released the book Við öll – Íslenskt velferðarsamfélag á tímamótum (All of Us - Icelandic Welfare Society at Crossroads).
Sigfússon’s goal is to encourage people to consider certain fundamental matters facing Icelandic society today, issues like environmental preservation, neolibertarianism, privatisation, growing wage differences, EU membership and Iceland’s contribution to the international community. Issues, he says, voters should seriously consider in coming elections. The Grapevine met with Sigfússon at his downtown office to learn more about his writing.
What made you decide to write this book?
There are a few main reasons for it. First of all, I feel that party leaders should inform people about what they stand for and clarify their views in a concrete way. Second of all, I think that Icelandic politics are lacking a solid ground for debate, a more extensive one than is made possible by short speeches, articles or news clips. What the book for the most parts does, is freeing me from worrying whether the article is 4,000 characters or the news clip longer than two minutes. In the third place, I find it important that people discuss these big subjects facing us today and in the near future in a wider context. There are even more reasons to do this now than ever, because of how interconnected these subjects have gotten in the globalised world.
You’ve been working in politics for 24 years. Why release the book now? Is it a coincidence it was released so shortly before the upcoming elections?
I got the idea a few years ago, but I never succeeded in finishing the book earlier. Last fall, I had to decide whether to go forth with the book or forget about it altogether so the timing is a coincidence. But this is a good period in my political career to tackle subjects like these. I have considerable experience, after 24 years in Parliament and being an active participant in international collaboration. Of course I hope the book will help the party in forthcoming elections. I also feel it can be a good manual for our candidates.
Are you trying to influence undecided voters or maybe turn someone to your side?
I hope that those interested in understanding me and my party members can learn more about our views by reading the book. But I also wrote the book so it would be interesting for people with different opinions, not necessarily thinking I would win them over, but, and this I find very important, for the discourse in general, and so readers can better understand my conclusions. Why I am so deeply opposed to the heavy industry. Why we [The Leftist-Green Party] have fought against the blind privatisation process. Why I am such a firm supporter of the Nordic welfare system, etc. In the book I explain why. People can then choose to agree or disagree with me.
Icelandic politicians have not written such a book recently.
That is true. Unfortunately, this tradition isn’t very strong in Iceland, but in the other Nordic countries it is considered almost an inevitable part of every politician’s career, if he takes himself seriously and thinks he has something worthwhile to say, to explain his views this way. In my office, I have books written by such different politicians as Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Sten Gade. Högni Hojdal and Kristin Halvorsen. In Iceland, this tradition has been almost nonexistent for the past decades. Of course I would be excited if the unlikely happened that the chairman of the Independence Party or the Progressive Party would write a book. Hopefully I will inspire them to do so.
In the book, you address numerous issues but the underlying theme is environmental preservation, your sincere belief in the advantage of the Nordic model and that you want Iceland to be an independent and neutral nation…
My dream, and I explain this in the book, is that Iceland continues to be an independent welfare and cultural state with the strength to stand on its own, internationally, without any superpower chauvinism. Therefore I want us to become messengers of disarmament and peaceful solutions. Finally, I feel Icelanders should protect democracy and legitimate international cooperation and see that international organisations and the national right are not boycotted when people see fit. Iceland has nothing in common with militarism for example and it’s so ridiculously stupid to group Iceland with military empires like happened with the Iraqi war. This I want to see changed.
When you address environmental issues, taxation, growing inequality and the way the government has dealt with what you claim to be fundamental issues facing Icelandic society today, you aren’t hiding your harsh opposition. How have your opponents responded to the book?
Those who have commented about the book have for the most part been satisfied with the project and praised it highly. The Prime Minister even honoured me with his presence at my release party. There have been fewer incidents where people are addressing certain issues. My opponents have rather asked me how I found the time to write the book. That’s a question I find hard to answer.
I need to ask about the book title. All of Us - Icelandic Welfare Society at Crossroads. You cover collective responsibility and the welfare of the human kind in general in great length in the book…
At first, I was thinking about the title What Now Iceland? One of my chief objectives in writing the book was to bring to light the main concerns Icelandic society faces at the moment and then pose the question where we should be heading. What kind of a society do we want, how are we going to treat nature, what role do we want Iceland to play in the international community, etc. When I wrote my conclusions, because of what you mention, my emphasis on the welfare society, the title wrote itself. Then I realised that the underlying theme in the end is all of us. The title highlights my uncompromising opinion, that we should by no means depart from building a welfare society by the likes of what we know from other Nordic countries, which I think is the most developed type of society on earth.
What crossroads are you driving at?
The crossroads, among other things, is our need to take the question [what kind of a society do we want], seriously and debate it. Are we OK with the fact that we are heading away from the equal welfare societies and are we going to continue on that path, etc? The wage gap in the country is increasing in a staggering way and inequality escalating. I am therefore posing this fundamental question with the hope that voters think about it in the coming elections. I think that next spring’s ballot is an enormous opportunity to counteract the situation and send out a clear message regarding this fundamental matter.
You seem very convinced that Icelanders want the Nordic model more than anything else.
Yes, I think that the vast majority truly does. However, there has been this urge to undermine the issues. When it gets close to elections, the Progressive Party for example, tries to disguise itself as a socialist party and acts as if it has been in the opposition. The Independence Party starts pretending as well, although it has pushed the country away from the Nordic welfare model, especially regarding taxation, how the state finances are governed and by privatising public service. Now they are trying to change The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service into a limited-liability company. Is that in line with a Nordic cultural, democratic and equal society? No.
A book like this one is of course not free from criticism. It has been pointed out that certain conflicts are evident in your writing, depending on what issue you are tackling. That when criticising the government you paint a dark picture of the situation but when opposing the EU membership, you rank Iceland high in comparison with other nations. That there is a certain struggle between you as a pessimist and optimist depending on what chapter you are writing.
When examined better, I don’t think these statements are contradictory. I’m not denying that many things have been going our way, especially in the economical context or creating capital goods, but I am also raising the red flag. I see both the pros and cons in the situation but think we can do much better. We can say that the ship is sailing at high speeds, but not in the right direction regarding environmental, economic and social issues. I feel our ship is sailing too close to the rocks.
I need to ask you one final question regarding its epilogue. There you write: “We can all have it good. We can all feel well. We have enough for everyone, if only we share equally.” Aren’t you being unrealistic?
No, I don’t want to believe that I am. If I lose the dream of a better world I wouldn’t have anything to do in politics anymore. I firmly believe we can do considerably better in sharing our goods, reducing poverty and improving the lives of the least advantaged. That is the priority. When writing this, I am referring to Iceland being a rich country, with every means to reach this goal. In my opinion, a society should be structured so everyone can have equal opportunities, and for that, I am willing to fight until my dying breath. That’s what the Nordic welfare society does and that’s what Iceland should do.

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