“The course of action I would suggest… is a course of action I can’t suggest!”
The fictional President of the United States, Bennett, uttered these words in the 1994 film ‘Clear and Present Danger’. Wishing to initiate an illegal covert operation, he lets his wishes be known to his inferiors, who proceed to enact his will.
As far as the Icesave matter goes, I would echo these words: though hopefully they will sound less sinister coming from me.
The Manichean choice facing the Icelandic nation on tomorrow’s referendum cuts crazily across political lines. It is typically those on either end of the commonly accepted political left-right spectrum who are against the Icesave deal. These are the NEIs, those who would say NO to the deal.
The NEIs on the right are in a desperate state of denial, convinced that somehow they can change the narrative that they caused Iceland’s economic crisis. These NEIs are the unjust NEIs.
The NEIs on the left are justifiably angry that they and other innocents—including unborn generations of Icelanders—should be forced to shoulder the crushing burden of debt implied by the deal. These are the righteous NEIs.
The unjust NEIs suffer under the delusion or the vain hope that if Iceland only fights hard enough, the country will pull through and everything will go back to “normal”. Only people like them have the backbone to stand up and save the country – and incidentally their own legacy and narrative version of event—from the crushing ignominy of debt. This is of course delusional: that sort of defiance from Iceland would not be forgiven.
The righteous NEIs seem to believe that just because the debt will be borne by the innocent, the debt can be escaped. This is also an unrealistic appraisal of the situation. Historically, enslaved or indebted nations escaped their condition only if they had the power to do so. Iceland does not have the power to do so. Iceland is one nation: the righteous must share the fate of their unjust brethren.
While the JÁ or YES vote represents an acceptance of responsibility for a partly unfair debt, it seems to be the option that engenders the most goodwill from Iceland’s neighbours, and the best terms for assessing the debt.
It’s a bitter fate. However, there is some small reason for optimism beyond what we can see in pie charts and line graphs.
The respect and trust Iceland will gain through this honourable course will enable the country to get back on its feet again, albeit shakily. Seen as having absorbed the sharp lessons of fooling with other people’s livelihoods, Iceland may become an attractive place to invest in once more. There is a basis for real wealth, after all: the country’s natural resources and inventive people. This is the apparent reward of the JÁs vote.
A less apparent reward lies in the future. The modern mind-set is dangerously amnesiac, dismissing human history before the Industrial Revolution as dark and primitive. This state of mind has been necessary for the neoliberals and útrásarvíkingar of our own times, as their worldview is based only on theory and rhetoric, not on historical precedent and common sense. Theirs are ideological strategies, without references to our human past. A poetic reminder from Iceland’s own past, from ‘Grímnismál’, is appropriate here:
Huginn og Muninn
fljúga hverjan dag
Óum-k eg Hugin
að hann aftr né komi,
þó sjáum-k eg meir um Munin.
Óðinn’s ravens, whose names we might translate as Thought and Memory, fly over the expanse of the earth. “I fear that Thought should not return,” he says, “yet my fear for Memory is greater.” Thought is meaningless without the context of memory. There are lessons to be learned from history.
Maximilien de Béthune, duc du Sully, was the chief minister serving King Henri IV of France. After Henri’s colossally expensive rise to the throne—putting the crown under enormous debt—Sully enacted measures ensuring honest conduct in France’s financial affairs. This was needful, but he did more than put the financial house in order. Having acquired this great debt in civil war, Sully refused to pay the interest on the debt. He proceeded to negotiate the rates down from those originally agreed. He refused to pay on schedule. He basically defaulted, and had in effect rebuilt France financially.
Iceland must keep this example in mind, thinking in the long term. Having established a position of strength after the recovery resulting from a JÁ vote, Iceland may implement Sully’s strategy of over time. It is then that Iceland may point out the unfairness of Britain indefensibly using its terrorism laws against Iceland. It is when paper trails have been firmly established and examined that Iceland can point out Britain and Holland’s own stupidity and collusion in the Icesave disaster. Iceland will have time to sway other nations to their view over time, making a case for renegotiation in the future. It may be a future ensured by the present government, and taken credit for by future governments; but the basis for healing is being established by the current government.
Despite not paying back according to the terms of the loans, Sully’s example does not support the NEI side. Sully acted from a position of strength and authority, not of weakness. The world would interpret a NEI in the referendum as the defiance of thieves. Future negotiation must be made by an Iceland seen by the international community as wronged by the cynical and strong, cheated by international criminals—and able to weather possible economic reprisals by their strong neighbours. Which it isn’t yet able to do.
Iceland’s good Minister of Finance, Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, can’t very well say: “Well, yes, we’re going to pay you back even if it kills us—but not really.” And so I propose a JÁ vote, and “a course of action I can’t suggest”.
Guy Stewart is a teacher in Reykjavík
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