Today I stepped off a plane into the crisp, bright northern air of Iceland. 724 miles north-west of Lerwick. 320,000 people live upon this volcanic, Viking isle. It is one of Scotland’s nearest neighbours. Yet how much do we know of its culture, its politics and its people?
It’s fame and infamy in our recent popular culture soars and sinks amid crisis and chaos. The financial collapse of 2008 and the disruptive ash-cloud of Eyjafjallajökull sticks to my mind. My pre-travel polling sample provided more comforting descriptions of existence above the North Sea. The scenery is breath-taking, I was told. This featured alongside promises that the people are welcoming, the fish is cheap, and the bars stay open long into the early morning light. That advice could be misread as an advert for a late night trip to the Blue Lagoon (one of Glasgow’s finer chippies). Yet the steam off Iceland’s Blue Lagoon is certainly more enticing than the cigarette clouds which have a tendency to hover outside Glasgow take-ways. (see image below)
Beyond the lofty tourist images, the hard facts of Iceland contradict the recent negativity from our own media – which uses ‘Iceland’ as a pseudonym for ‘failed state’. In a snap-shot, Iceland is a rich, rural nation. From its economic origins as a farming and fishing community, Iceland’s wealth rocketed within the 20th century following aluminium extraction and a finance and service sector boom. Today – despite recent instability – Iceland remains more wealthy and far more equal than the United Kingdom or Scotland. Its journey, since declaring independence almost a century ago, contains challenges and questions similar to those facing Scotland.
Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1918 was the beginning of huge challenges for a small nation. As an island community, geographically detached and economically restricted, the ending of rule from Copenhagen brought risks and uncertainties. Only a few months after the end of a tragic global war and amid a continued age of empire, foreign policy cooperation with Denmark remained. Across three decades, Iceland was ‘Independence-lite’ within a social union with the Danes.
For our consideration it is worth considering how Iceland’s constitutional position was the result of a journey rather than an event. In 1944, as war once again raged in Europe, democracy in Iceland said ‘Yes!’ to full independence and ‘Yes!’ to becoming a republic. (The substantial majorities are befitting of exclamation marks) Almost 70 years later, Iceland remains independent – from Denmark and from the EU. My knowledge of this period is limited, yet hopefully some Octarians may fully inform me within the next few days.
I do know that Iceland’s independence was not without turbulence. There were riots as Iceland joined NATO. There were angry protests as Iceland’s financial boom turned into the most distressing of busts. I have also been warned that the recent elections – which witnessed a shift from left to right – may have caused further political antipathy. However, independence also provided opportunities for Iceland. I have read Lesley Riddoch’s articles on attempts to renew Icelandic democracy. I have heard of Iceland’s 100% success in harnessing renewable energy. In one instance a former military base in Keflavik has been transformed into a centre for global, clean, technology. These stories aside, I am yet to hear what Icelanders think and feel about their own nation and our own.
In the next week I have set up interviews with key figures who are playing their part in Iceland’s modern sagas: from attempts to forge a new constitution, to figures within the newly elected government, to those dreaming of an information haven for the world’s writers. Great things are often born in small places. Iceland has been no different. In a week, perhaps, I can find a few stories for Scotland. In that journey, in Iceland, there may be hope, energy and evidence that small is beautiful.
— Michael Gray (@GrayInGlasgow) May 28, 2013