By Susan Pettie. Susan runs So Say Scotland, a project inspired by Iceland’s grassroots national assemblies movement.
The newly created and proposed Icelandic constitution, which we are hearing quite a bit about at the moment, has a preamble that starts with:
We, the people who inhabit Iceland, wish to create a just society where every person has equal opportunity. Our diverse origin enriches our society and together we are responsible for the heritage of generations, our country and its history, nature, language and culture.
To quote Professor Þorvaldur Gylfason, when he was speaking at a Nordic Horizon’s event in the Scottish Parliament March 29 2012, “why did we want to say this upfront? Well that is because . . . Iceland has not been that kind of place”. An interesting point to make for a country that in 2012:
- topped the World Economic Forums Global Gender Gap Report climbing from fourth in the year of its now near mythic crash 2008
- also topped the Global Peace Index: defence spending is low, having scrapped the Icelandic Defence Agency which was launched in 2008, though still contributing to NATO peace keeping missions, and only 47 per 100,000 folk in jail
- interestingly was first ranking in the UN Human Development Index in 2007 and 2008, as of 2012 is 14th, with life expectancy and years of schooling on the rise.
- but 88/151 on the New Economics Happy Planet Index mostly because of its poor ranking on ecological footprint as a result of the ruling elites implementation of neoliberal economic policies, and perhaps therein we find some of the rub
Professor Gylfason was one of 25 people elected to what became the 2011 Constitutional Council. This group was instrumental in drafting the proposal for what is hoped will become Iceland’s second constitution since 1944. The current document was adopted when Denmark was occupied during the Second World War and Iceland saw it’s chance to become a constitutional Republic (having become a sovereign state in 1920) gaining full independence from 580 years of Danish rule.
The original Icelandic Commonwealth had entered into a Union with Norway in the mid 13th century that had been subsumed by the Danish monarchy in the Kalmar Union. Prompted by the European Spring of 1848, Iceland called a Þjóðfundurinn (The National Meeting or Assembly) with the desire to resolve the political standing of the country. The Danish Governor at the time dissolved the meeting due to irreconcilable differences between the Danish colonial desires and that of the natives for self-determination. At which point the leader of the independence movement Jón Sigurðsson stated his protest, reportedly to have been unanimously echoed by the members of the assembly.
The first ever constitution for Iceland was introduced in 1874 as a result of the growing independence movement and calls for civil rights in wider Europe. However it only gave authority over internal matters, managed through their parliament the Alþingi, which had been reinstated in 1844 after 45 years abeyance: perhaps something like today’s Scottish devolution settlement. At this time the country was a constitutional monarchy with the Danish King ultimately in charge.
Icelanders celebrate their Independence Day on Jón Sigurðsson’s birthday June 17th. Jón was born in 1811 the year after an aborted coup by a Danish prisoner of war and an English merchant looking to source tallow for his soap production. At the time of Jon’s birth it seems Icelanders had no great desire for autonomy or democracy, quite a different story from today or from the time of the original settlement when Iceland emerged, uniquely in Europe during that period, as a proto-republic.
It’s important for us to understand the context of peoples and how the environment that their culture grows out of influences social development. Having hovered around fifty thousand people from beginning of contemporary recording in 1703 to 1830, population growth recorded 85,661 people in 1912. One hundred years later most of Iceland’s 319,575 population is descended from the Norsemen, and their Gaelic (Scottish and Irish) slaves who are understood to have settled the land around the 870s. This settlement is detailed in the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), a companion text to the Icelandic Sagas which allows for the tracking of families, stories and their interconnection from the first 435 settler groupings into the 11th Century. These medieval manuscripts have helped to sustain the shared narrative of the population for over 1,100 years.
Today there is a website Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders), which contains genealogical information about the inhabitants of Iceland. You can pop in your kennitala (ID number) and up comes a list of your relations, in some cases back to the original settlers. That would be like me being able to trace my family tree online back to when Kenneth MacAlpine was uniting the Kingdom of Scotland.
The Icelandic people conceive their current Parliament as part of an almost unbroken line of representative democracy since the first assembly or thing of the Old Norse tradition was convened. The initial Alþingi (General Assembly) of the Icelandic Commonwealth was held at Þingvellir (Assembly Fields) in 930. (Govan had a thing site apparently intentionally erased from memory during the consolidating of the Kingdom of the Scots, as it had been the power centre of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. Imagine it rather as having held a continuous line of democracy since it’s establishment, around the same time as the Icelandic Alþingi, until now!)
As the initial post-kreppa (crisis) protest of October 2008 matured into a movement, the Raddir Fólksins (Voices of the People) with weekly gatherings outside the Parliament also offered the opportunity for strangers to meet connect and discover common interests.
As a small tribal nation, Icelanders have developed some customs that limit social circles. Often close relationships revolve around family and friends made at school, coupled with a surprisingly strict social distance with acquaintances likely evolving out of the power of favouritism and abuse of discretion to impact lives. People hold their cards close to their chests in dealings with each other, and are canny at manoeuvring in a small-p political environment where you never know when the person your dealing with might have connections which can impact your future
In January 2009 parallel to the movement achieving its stated aims of ‘Resignation of the Government’ and ‘Elections as soon as possible’ some of those people that had been meeting weekly felt that is was important to continue this heart beat of the revolution. They set up the Hugmyndaráðuneytið (Ministry of Ideas) with the aim of “channeling some of the human potential we have here in Iceland into innovation and entrepreneurship” creating “a forum for innovators of all sorts, in all fields”.
Meanwhile the elections threw out the party of the establishment Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (The Independence Party), Iceland’s ruling right elite, and brought in for the first time a coalition of Samfylkingin (The Social Democratic Alliance) and Vinstrihreyfingin – grænt framboð (The Left-Green Movement).
As the new government got to work, the grassroots weekly meetings began to consider what had gone wrong with their representative democracy and how they might upgrade their political operating system; out of these discussions a voluntary adhocracy Mauraþúfan (The Anthill) emerged. We can consider Iceland’s constitutional review as being formed by parallel process’ of people and politics.
The chair of the Social Democratic Alliance, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, became Prime Minister in the new Government. While Jóhanna is noted for being the world first openly gay head of government, and Iceland’s first female Prime Minister, she also brought with her to office a long-held passion for constitutional reform from her 35 years in parliament. Since 1944 the parliament had been promising to review the hastily appropriated constitution but as Prof Gylfason points out the very vested interest who benefit from it’s imbalance were the ones charged with changing it: no surprise that the process never got off the ground.
Inspired no doubt by the 1844 Þjóðfundurinn, Mauraþúfan began to consider calling another national meeting. Amongst the ranks of this grassroots gathering were people passionate about the power of dialogue including a key figure in the design of the process Bjarni Snæbjörn Jónsson. Bjarni had been involved in values surveys in Iceland pre- and post-kreppa, and for his PHD dissertation was interested in examining the ‘conscious evolution of human social systems’. In November 2009 around the same time as nearly 1,500 people (half a per cent of the population, equivalent in Scotland to 25,000 people) gathered to consider ‘What core values will be our guiding light in developing the society and what is the purpose and vision of the future society of Iceland?’, with outcomes including a demand for constitutional review, the Parliament was considering a bill on the setting up of a Constitutional Assembly.
Before the bill became an Act in June 2010 it evolved the constitutional review process to start with another national meeting of a random selection of the population, this time ‘to call for the principal viewpoints and points of emphasis of the public concerning the organisation of the country’s government and its constitution’.
After this national meeting, elections to the Constitutional Assembly (which then became a Parliamentary Council) were held and the 25 elected persons ‘of no political affiliation’ chaired by Salvör Nordal, Director of the Ethics Institute University of Iceland, proceeded to work detail into the broad-brushstroke recommendations from the national meeting. All council meetings were live streamed, proposed clauses were posted online for comments, and invitation was made for all those with ideas to get in touch. While international reaction to the process and draft has been positive, criticism highlights the inherent bias to the political left with the ruling elite choosing to exclude themselves. Interestingly the most innovative democratic suggestions were rejected and the decision was made to keep the patriarchal pyramidic form of executive oversight in the President, though with reduced powers. On 27 July 2011 the council unanimously agreed the proposed constitution and presented it to the Parliament.
The proposal was eventually put to a non-binding public referendum in October 2012 with six specific questions that highlighted the key changes included in it – natural resources as national property, establishment of a national church, election of individuals to the parliament (rather than just parties), equal weight for votes cast (rural votes count more currently), proportion of the electorate can demand a referendum – as well as asking for general agreement to use it as the basis of a new draft constitution. These areas hit at the core of the sustaining power of the imbalance in Iceland’s society that the ruling elite has prospered from.
Turn out was 48.7 per cent with a majority voting in favor of the six questions, Samtök um Nýja Stjórnarskrá (The Union for a New Constitution) felt it a success though widely divergent interpretation of the results can be found on either side of the political spectrum.
Before the referendum the newly re-elected President (longest ever in office) publicly argued against the proposal, sighting the disunity in parliament as fundamentally problematic. This continued in his Jan 1 New Year address. Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn encouraged voters to reject the proposal and Samfylkingin encouraged them to accept it: with the Prime Minister sighting the vote as a clear mandate from the people for change in her end of year speech. Challenges from experts on Icelandic history and constitution, law departments in Icelandic universities and lawyers in the Supreme Court continue. The evolving proposal which now includes the responses from a specialist group and the results of the referendum will go to The European Commission for Democracy through Law or Venice Commission in January to asses its impact.
There will be a general election in Iceland this year, the current Prime Minister has said she will not stand, with the economy improving support for the right is increasing in the polls, and concern that movement on the constitution will be delayed until after the election is palpable. Like every system of privilege the people who benefit from it are indoctrinated with the righteousness of its design: what motivation would Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn have to continue with a constitutional proposal which would see their monopoly on resources, power, and people reduced?
This article was first published in Scottish Left Review – with thanks. Susan Pettie lived and worked in Iceland. She now runs So Say Scotland, a politically-neutral, broad-minded, nonprofit and currently voluntary project inspired by Iceland’s grassroots national assemblies movement –www.sosayscotland.org