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The good President: Iceland's Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson

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by Publius


Iceland shows directly-elected Heads of State can do everything monarchists claim the monarchy does. Publius discusses Iceland's Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson.

The recent experience in Iceland relating to a President veto highlights something important: directly-elected Heads of State do everything monarchists claim the monarchy does.

A lot of monarchists like to assert that the Crown is a “check and balance"—that it can, for example, veto legislation in the name of the people, invoking nostalgic imagery of some ancient feudal bond between the Crown and its subjects.  Often they note the ‘flexibility’ the Crown has to act in time of emergency, to privilege public welfare and national unity over the private interests of the financial elites and other ethnic minorities.

This sounds like somewhat of a dubious claim…probably because it is.

The monarchy of Spain, confronted with 22 per cent unemployment and its own separatist movement, has not seen any overtly “unifying” figure amid that nation’s widespread poverty and destitution. The King of Belgium has been powerless to deal with its problems despite his sweeping reserve powers—Belgium takes the record for the country being most without a government. Indeed, it is shortly about to become a non-country—being divided due to racial and linguistic divisions between the Walloons (Francophiles) and the Flemish community (Dutch speakers). In Sweden, the King has hardly been a “symbol of unity” and stability with its country experiencing an increasing level of rioting. Indeed, Spain is in a far worse situation than either Ireland and Iceland, with higher levels of unemployment (22%) and higher levels of debt, though Ireland is in a similar straightjacket, with the discretion left to their President being virtually nil.



Iceland, by contrast, has been growing and has 7 per cent unemployment—less than Sweden, and much lower than Spain, the UK, or the OECD generally. Iceland’s Government refused to bail out their banks. Better still, their President, ÓlafurRagnar Grímsson,refused to automatically bail out the British banks and their depositors, passing the matter over to the people as he is empowered to do so under the Icelandic Constitution. As the President observed, these bankers by sending all this money to Iceland should have seen there was a bubble growing. They are happy to privatise the gains, but socialise the losses. This time last year he vetoed a similar bill that forced each Islander to pay $12,000 per person.

Yesterday, President again decided to veto the bill (Icesave Version II), and refer it to the people.

The People over the politicians’

So how does direct-election protect the people? It does so because the President is an agent of the people: he can sense their anger (obvious given the large petition the President received to veto the bill) and their outrage (as expressed in opinion polls). There is no mandate here. The President, except for three bills in its history, has always signed laws. It’s business as usual in usual times. All the President has done is given the people a voice, under Article 26 of the Icelandic Constitution…nothing else. But he has a sense of what the people want and what they feel against the party elites who casually disregard the will of the people.

Grímsson, a former Minister of Finance, puts his position simply:

Icelandic President, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson

“How far can we ask ordinary people – farmers and fishermen and teachers and doctors and nurses – to shoulder the responsibility of failed private banks.  That question, which has been at the core of the Icesave issue, will now be the burning issue in many European countries.”

This is leadership above politics.

Though Grímsson was once a member of the same party responsible for the new Icesave proposal, he has resigned his membership upon being elected as President (virtually all directly-elected Heads of State do from Singapore, Finland and Austria) and since then has placed himself above partisan politics by referring the matter to the people. He is a symbol of national unity and protector of the people (as well as a Professor of Political Science).

But how does this compare with the Crown and its veto? Of course, it would be unthinkable for the Queen to veto a bill. She lacks the legitimacy that a directly-elected Head of State has, as well as the accountability. Indeed, as I have discussed elsewhere, we have examples where politicians in the Caribbean have given themselves double-digit pay increases, which the Governor has then vetoed, arguing for the bill to be put to a referendum. Rather than do this, the politicians simply ask the Queen to dismiss the Governor. Naturally, the Queen complies, destroying even that slim modicum of democratic accountability. Other colourful examples include vetoes in the 1840s, where Governors’ have refused to sign debtor relief, causing widespread insolvencies to the “farmers, fishermen and teachers” the monarchy allegedly is designed to protect.

Iceland is a democracy, Britain and Spain are not

Of course, Iceland has one of the best democratic records the world has ever seen. It was the first country in the world to have a functioning Parliament with regular meetings (under the Icelandic Commonwealth, a Republic, around 936 AD). It was the first country in the world to have a directly-elected female Head of State. It was also the first country in the world to have an openly gay Head of Government—their current Prime Minister is a lesbian. All of these Icelandic developments were the result of getting rid of the monarch, which led to these democratic reforms. It was religious persecution by a Norwegian King that forced them to flee to Iceland and thereafter establish a Parliament in the first place. Iceland, which unlike Norway has no oil resources, was ranked 1st twice in the UN Human Development Index (an index much loved by David Flint and many other monarchists).

Unfortunately, the British do not understand what a democracy is, as this Jeremy Paxman blusteringly reveals in the below interview.

As Grímsson says: “In Iceland, we use the referendum, I know that in the UK trusting the will of the people is not something you understand”.

With no vote on the Lisbon Treaty and the fact 75 per cent of UK laws made by the EU, this seems like a fair assessment.

Don’t let politicians’ do to Australia what they did to Europe...

With talk of a ‘single currency’ between Australia and New Zealand and a propensity for Australia to itself run property bubbles (1840s, 1890s, 1973, 1990, 2011(?)), adopting the more extensive use of the referendum should be on the agenda of an Australian Republic— a Republic should guard against future neo-liberal calamities and gimmicks that our politicians will seek to foist on us, forcing us to surrender our national sovereignty to faceless, far-away bureaucrats.

Iceland is a small homogenous country. By contrast, Australia is a federal state, and we should keep this in mind if we choose to adopt a directly elected Head of State along the Finnish, Icelandic, Austrian lines (e.g. by requiring an X amount of signatures of various candidates to come from all the states). But the advantages of a directly-elected Head of State are salutary when the people want accountability from the class politique—something the monarchy is not able to give its subjects in practice.  
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