Politics, sorry...

28 June 2010

Iceland’s a strange little country. I lived there for ten years, learned the language well enough to pass for a stray Faroese, and follow what goes on there more closely than I follow current events where I live now. It took a long time for it to sink in, but it’s a weird place. Ideas and values aren’t the same as they are elsewhere, but a lot of it’s a long way below the surface. Don’t get me wrong – I’m deeply fond of the second home where my two daughters were born – but there are odd facets to the place that it took the crash in 2008 when the banks finally went haywire to really throw this stuff into sharp relief.

Every year a worthy organisation in, I believe, Berlin ranks countries according to how corrupt or not they are, and Iceland has always been pretty close to the top of the tree along with the rest of Scandinavia. In reality, Iceland is more than a little corrupt, but it’s an insidious, discreet brand of corruption that doesn’t show on the surface and that an outsider wouldn’t readily notice. Try and bribe a police officer to forget a speeding ticket and you’d be in a cell so fast your head would spin. But as the report of the Special Investigation Commission has demonstrated, it seems that those higher up the social scale and on fatter salaries than most of us are not as honest or conscientious as your average low-grade public servant.

In a country the size of Croydon, conflicts of interest are virtually unavoidable. Everyone knows someone who knows someone else’s cousin. Who you know rather than what you know is the order of the day in many spheres of business. Family ties complicate matters, especially as for Icelanders family ties and ancestry are important. Genealogy is a national pastime. Political affiliations are also everywhere. In the past, you had to be a member of the right party to do something as simple as get a bank loan, and a person’s political allegiance or perceived allegiances, of lack of, could make or break a business or a career. Unsavoury, but true. After growing up in an environment like this, is it any surprise that Iceland’s banksters thrived the moment the climate was right?

This was brought home to me not long ago when the press officer for a particular organisation was haranguing me (via email, not verbally) for writing something that had upset his paymasters.

‘You, of all people should know better,’ he thundered, and I could almost sense the disappointment in his words that I had transgressed and not automatically accepted that the point of view he was being paid to promulgate was the right one. I was stunned for five minutes and carefully didn’t reply. I was furious – það fauk í mig - and I decided that the message didn’t even deserve a reply. This character had assumed that he knew just where my own personal sympathies lay, and he was quite, quite wrong.

As it happens, I do know better - better than to subscribe to this unsavoury old boys’ network of underhanded deals and cronyism, and better than to accept something at face value without asking ‘why?’

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