WHOSE INDEPENDENCE?

Published June 11, 2004

This will be the version we´ll be hearing on the 17th of June, when Iceland celebrates its 60th anniversary as a republic. This, by and large, is also the version taught in Icelandic schools. In the struggle for independence from Denmark (which actually took the form of lawyers from both sides haggling with each other about age-old agreements), the writing of Icelandic history became a weapon in the struggle. Of course, everything that ever went wrong had to be the fault of the Norwegians and the Danes. Icelandic history is long overdue for an overhaul. Some historians now claim that the quest for independence was actually a reaction by a conservative farmer´s society against new liberal values coming in from Denmark. But these voices, as yet, receive little attention.

Independence, we are told, is the reason for Iceland´s prosperity. We even have a party named after it, and people obligingly vote for it every four years. It is interesting to note that whereas in Scandinavia, the parties that attract the largest following of people tend to be social democrats, here the largest mass party is the conservative one. Actually, it was formed under the name The Conservative Party in 1924, but underwent a name change five years later and has since been called the Independence Party. A few weeks before the Republic celebrates its 60th birthday, the party celebrated its 75 years. After 13 consecutive years in power, the party is today more disputed than it has often been, but its success with the electorate throughout the history of the republic is beyond dispute. What then explains this success, rare for right wing parties in Europe?

The First New Society

Perhaps we need to go farther back into Icelandic history to find causes to this, much farther back than the actual founding of the party. We need to go back to the very founding of Iceland itself.
Every nation has, to a greater or lesser extent, mythological foundations. This is even more true of settler communities who were consciously founded as new societies. The American scholar Louis Hartz said:

“When a part of a European nation is detached from the whole of it, and hurled outward toward new soil, it loses the stimulus toward change that the whole provides. It lapses into a kind of immobility.”

To put it another way, and as stipulated in Richard F. Tomasson´s book Iceland: The First New Society, settler communities are inherently conservative. The puritans did not embark on the Mayflower from England to America in order to build a new society. They went in order to preserve a way of life that they no longer found themselves able to continue in their old home. By the same token, Ingólfur Arnarsson and the first settlers here did not come to Iceland to form a new society, but to get away from a new order in the old one, in this case being imposed by the unification of Norway. For almost 400 years they managed to preserve their clan-based society here, until this led to interminable blood feuds and the Norwegian king needed to be called upon to impose peace. This might go someway towards explaining the conservative streak in most settler communities to this day. While it is true that what happened a thousand years ago may not have much direct impact upon our actions today, the story of our foundations have entered our collective consciousness, and how we define who we are.

A Nation of Kings

However, there are noticeable differences between Iceland and other immigrant societies. First of all, settlers from Europe came here almost a millennium before colonisers flocked North America and to parts of the British Empire. And whereas the United States prided itself on receiving Europe´s hungry and poor, Iceland, it seems, was populated solely by kings. If these brought any subjects along, they receive scant mention. Upon the unification of Norway, all the petty kings there left and moved to Iceland. In the Saga age, we are told, every man in Iceland was a king. These are the stories we are brought up on. Icelanders did not come here in search of a better life in a land of milk and honey. They came here for their independence. So whereas the American dream is one of overnight success, the Icelandic dream is one of being your own man. We are an independent people, a nation of kings.

But in a nation made up solely of kings, it is very hard to organise things. Icelanders are, unlike their Norwegian cousins who stayed behind to serve the new state, very bad at thinking in terms of groups. Small wonder then, that what is probably the most successful organisation in Icelandic history, managing to represent consistently roughly 40% of the population, stands not for what is best for the group but what is best for the individual. The Independence Party was formed as a club for the upper classes. In a nation of kings, everyone assumed this meant them.

The New Kings

In a year that celebrates 100 years of Home Rule, 60 years of independence and 75 years of the Independence Party, considerable changes have emerged in the landscape. Realignments of financial power have taken place in the last decade that are nothing short of revolutionary. In the 90s, restrictions were eased and the economy was opened up, and vast fortunes were made by people who did not have strong ties to the Independence Party, whereas the wealthiest people in the past always did. Their fortunes are now immeasurably greater than those of the old families (the 14 families or the Octopus, as they were known) who formerly controlled the Icelandic economy. But as the nouveau-riche have not yet been accepted by the old guard still in control of the Independence Party, there now exists a rift between financial and political power that is rarely seen in history. A similar situation existed in France in the 18th Century. There financial power was being amassed by the bourgeois but the nobility still held a monopoly on political power, and this led to revolution.

That is not very likely to happen here. Before long, there will no doubt be a realignment. Money will, as always, find its way into government. Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson is stepping down in September. Perhaps the next generation of Independence Party leaders will be more accommodating to the new financial interests. Or perhaps the new money men will find other parties to look after their investments, in which case the Independence Party might wind up, ironically, as truly representative of the people. As always we´ll be the last to know, since Iceland, unique as always, is the only democracy which does not insist upon political parties displaying their accounts. We don´t get to see who pays our representatives bills, and hence have no idea on who´s behalf they speak.

At least, for now, there are two voices being heard in Iceland instead of one, since the political elite and the financial elite no longer speak with a single, unified voice. That´s something. But don´t expect it to last forever. And don´t expect the new kings to be any different from the old.



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