Regardless of which side you chose, there cannot have been many happenings in recent political memory more heartening than the Scottish Referendum. While international markets got the twitchy bums they inevitably contract before a potential watershed election, and while the governments of Spain and of Italy tried to batten down Catalonia and Venice before they started getting ideas of their own, millions of engaged, franchised voters were living out the meaning of democracy before the world’s eyes. This means that in a fair and functional democratic society, every citizen must be a politician. It was a showing the likes of which have become more and more foreign, certainly in Britain, since the country saw the end of World War II.
The political class, in its current state of evolution, found the whole situation rather too much to stomach. For all it does to damningly indict Britain’s electorate, it is true that it has become the luxury of politicians in previous decades to rely on the soft reply of their voters on key issues. Governments have felt liberated to twist and to refrain from following through because voters have, in recent years, either been too apathetic to register dissent or have registered said dissent through entirely non-constructive means. When the young refuse to vote, they nullify their own considerable political value and essentially must accept all outcomes nolo contendere.
In Scotland, people remembered how to use the vote, and the more people engaged in politics, the more the body of their governance was retracted to its state of proper servitude. In short, the voters terrified the voted, which is quite as it should be.
As heartening as that story is, the story of Iceland and of its past few years as a defiant and firm country, is a warmer one still. Modest though it might seem, Iceland’s exemplary handling of themselves in the wake of the Great Recession has been ignored by the Western media by and large, even though their tale epitomises an even more determined application of that same clout shown by the voters across the Atlantic. Their story, one of a people who compelled themselves to apply the principles of Scotland to the everyday, goes roughly like this.
In 2008 Iceland’s banks collapsed in the midst of the financial crash. Its three main banks, Landsbankinn, Glitnir and Kaupthing were all nationalised so that the general population could shoulder their enormous burden of debt. The people of Iceland understandably chaffed robustly at the idea of having to carry the weight of cavalier mistakes in finance. However, instead of repressing this anger, instead of expressing it via reductive outlets, the people of Iceland rallied. They relieved their government of responsibility, as is their right, and formed an Assembly to write a new national constitution.
Iceland was put upon, much like nearly every other nation the world around during this time, and so Iceland planned. Iceland took bold new steps in political participation and justified them. Iceland listened to itself and assimilated ideas through a functional system of contribution, much of which revolved around Facebook. Iceland was sensible with existing bureaucratic infrastructure and used experts to temper and shape its new ideals. Though its constitutional efforts were frustrated in part, in the face of hardship, Iceland acted as a democratic people.
It is true that what has been possible, or indeed not possible, for Iceland is more remote for countries such as Britain or France. But to put the lessons learned from Iceland’s experience into practice can only improve the health of a given populace. Iceland’s constitution epitomises democratic process: had it resulted in a new fabric of the land, the existing fabric would have been woven in an entirely transparent, inclusive and representative manner, in stark contrast from, say, the one developed by America’s Founding Fathers. The citizens’ method of election purposefully isolated the constitution to the people’s sphere by restricting contributions from professional politicians. This kind of determination to tackle the electorate’s lack of satisfaction with governance is precisely the kind any society needs more of to ensure its government serves its people properly.
Despite some reports to the contrary, what Iceland’s story is not is a story of how the people took a flaming torch to hand, together with pitchforks and dragged all those big bad bankers out to the Westfjords by their hair and hanged them there. Those torches would very likely have melted the entire nation had they been lit. Like any economy of its like in a similar situation, they leaned on the IMF’s capital controls to keep the Krona in reasonably good nick, and to keep the trading routes sweet with buoys for their sovereign credit rating.
Rather, Iceland’s story is inspirational because in the face of great tumult the people reacted in a way that did not invite class war, that did not sensationalise a proper response, but that did make a real prospect out of a careful and sensitive recovery plan. The constitution that the people of Iceland drafted together (failed or not), via elected representatives and suggestions fielded from social media, is the emblem of a revolution of restraint and clear vision. It is a different kind of revolution from the one we are often exhorted to in the media or at the demo or in the junior common room, but it has meant that the people of Iceland have been able to bear their burden well, and face a future united after a financial downturn that has driven division through nearly every society around them.