Why has Iceland returned to the politicians who caused their crisis?

The centre-right's victory masks growing disaffection with politics.

As Iceland re-elects the parties that led it into the financial crisis and Italy forms its broadest coalition since 1946 to the sound of gunfire, something strange is afoot in European politics. As the economic crisis rumbles on past the five-year mark, traditional party systems across the continent are under strain and contorting themselves into ever-more unusual arrangements to meet the challenge posed by the plunging living standards of their electorates.

In retrospect Britain, which elected its first coalition since World War II in 2010, now looks like a trend-setter. Everywhere one looks across the continent, the financial crisis has upended the old patterns of politics. The "grand coalition" of left and right in Italy is only the latest example of political parties closing ranks against threats to their traditional position – in this case, economic woe and a surge by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which may be led by a comedian but proved it was no joke by garnering over 25 per cent of the vote in February’s election.

Meanwhile in Iceland, voters have just returned the centre right to power in the form of the Progressive Party and the Independence Party. These are the parties many blame for getting them into a financial mess in the first place. It was Independence Party Prime Minister David Oddsson who gave Iceland its version of the City’s "big bang" and was central bank governor when the financial crisis struck. That voters would turn back to these old hands – much less in the biggest electoral swing in Iceland’s independent history – is, to put it mildly, a sign of some desperation.

The head of Iceland's Pirate Party – another anti-establishment force which just won its first seats in a national legislature, becoming the first Pirate Party to do so – was rueful about the return of the centre right. "It is the problem of the leftwing," said Birgitta Jonsdottir, a Pirate Party MP. "They clean up the vomit after the cocaine party of the neocons, who go into rehab and then come back to reap the benefits." But the very success of her own movement is a sign of something else – outsiders are increasingly crashing the party.

Europe's national governments all share a basic impotence in the face of the economic crisis and the austerity consensus imposed from Brussels, Berlin and the bond markets. Even Iceland, which has its own currency, is not fully ruler in its own house – and the outgoing government had received many plaudits from outsiders like the IMF. The exact party configurations ruling in each capital are, to an extent, besides the point in the face of this external pressure. Witness how France’s first Socialist government in twenty years is now planning to slash capital gains tax to attract businesses.

This impotence is leading to a general decline of established party systems across Europe. Voters are realising that none of the traditional parties can fundamentally challenge the austerity consensus, and are turning to outsiders who might. Italy's Five Star Movement is one example. Greece's Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), which is now the second-biggest party in the country’s legislature, is another. Even UKIP is capitalising on the mess on the continent and economic fears here at home to shake up the British political scene.

As austerity passes into its second half-decade – and as forecasts for when it will come to an end are pushed further into the future – the strain on Europe’s traditional parties will increasingly show.  If Italy’s broadest coalition since World War II and Iceland’s establishment parties cannot deliver economic security to their voters – and there seems little reason to think they can – then what happens next will be unpredictable.  Voters are running out of options near the traditional centres of their politics.

All of this poses the greatest long-term threat to the austerity consensus across Europe, as perhaps leading figures in Brussels and Berlin are starting to realise as they rhetorically distance themselves from austerity and start to talk about how, as Jose Manuel Barroso said recently, the policy has reached the limits of its popular support. But the pull of the consensus – tied up as it is with continued euro membership and the European project as a whole – remains strong.

If European governments of the traditional left and right don’t find a way to keep public confidence in both themselves and the European project alive, then we will see outsiders keep rising and rising until one day they rise all the way into power. Even more worrying is what happens when despair at the political centre becomes despair over the political system as a whole, and starts to find expression in movements like Greece's Golden Dawn or in senseless acts of violence like the shooting of two police officers in Rome. They too are warning signs on the road to an austere future.

Birgitta Jonsdottir, leader of Iceland's anti-establishment Pirate Party. (Photo: Getty.)
Show Hide image

What does it mean for a leader when their entire country’s music culture rejects them?

The lack of good-quality artists performing at Donald Trump’s inauguration shows how weak his connection is with the country he’s about to govern.

Donald Trump’s inauguration planning has been bumpy. After numerous rejections, X Factor winner Rebecca Ferguson offered to sing, providing she could perform the protest song about lynching, “Strange Fruit”. In the last few days, a Bruce Springsteen Tribute Act has dropped out of the line-up. I hear it’s touch-and-go with the marching band.

The list of singers who have rejected the “opportunity” to play at Trump’s inauguration is extensive. Elton John, Charlotte Church, Céline Dion, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars and Kiss – so far, but the list continues to rack up. Those who have agreed are hardly household names: the Talladega College marching band, 3 Doors Down, Jackie Evancho (???), the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and someone called “DJ Ravidrums”. For context, Barack Obama had Beyoncé and Aretha Franklin.

From a musical perspective, Trump is screwed. While Obama was the subject matter of anthems (“My President” by Young Jeezy/ “Changes” by Common/ “Black President” by Nas), Trump is like an over-keen uni student attempting to organise a club night four days into Freshers’ Week. He’s already printed the goddamn posters, and keeps asking you whether you’ve bought your ticket to “Leeds’ FRE$HEST t e c h n o night – Artists TBC.”

To be fair to Trump, he has inspired some good music: YG’s “FDT” (that’s “Fuck Donald Trump” for all you non-YG fans out there) is a real hit.

Of course, the President-Elect is not the first political figure to have anti-establishment art created about him. Far from it. Punk centred around anti-authoritarianism: fuck Thatcher, fuck the Queen, et al. Public Enemy, Gil Scott-Heron, and Dead Kennedys all created anti-presidential songs during the Seventies and Eighties with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in their crosshairs.

There will always be a counter-cultural movement dissenting from the mainstream, raging against the machine – but what happens when it’s not counter-cultural, but just er, all culture? When even the mediocre Christian rock bands won’t play at your inauguration?

Trump does not worry about the backlash against him, but he should. Good music is born out of communities, which speaks to experiences. From lines like “When a n***a tryna board the plane / And they ask you, ‘What’s your name again?’ / ‘Cause they thinking, ‘Yeah, you’re all the same’” or “America is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey,” Trump could do with paying attention. Indeed, W.E.B. Du Bois writes in The Souls of Black Folk, “There is no true American Music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave.” Music has always been a political tool, and we should not underestimate its rhetorical power.

This is why Obama’s musical reach was so important. His appreciation of contemporary music spoke to a political awareness of American culture, one that he wanted to engage with and listen to. The recent Ta-Nehisi Coates piece My President was Black opens with the writer’s first-hand experiences of this – from Obama inviting musicians like Jay Z and Chance the Rapper to the White House, to holding music events.

“The Obamas are fervent and eclectic music fans,” Coates writes. “In the past eight years, they have hosted performances at the White House by everyone from Mavis Staples to Bob Dylan to Tony Bennett to the Blind Boys of Alabama.”

Heck, Obama even released two Spotify playlists.

The implications of Obama’s enthusiasm showed an affinity to the people he represented, an awareness of his times, and built a responsive community: one of artists, rappers and singers who want to celebrate in his existence. Obama’s love of music was a sign of an appreciation of the cultures that were producing it. Like a call and response, Obama spoke to the people, and the people called back.

Politics and music will always be interlinked. This is why people were angry over Kanye’s friendship with Trump – the “abomination of Obama’s nation” ignoring his fans, his community, to associate with a man with such a flagrant disregard for black voters. This is in part why we mourn dead musicians. This is why we sing at rallies and marches. The two are inextricably linked, and it is not wise to underestimate the power of the form.

Trump will, inevitably, brush away the foreboding cultural signifier of a musical community rejecting him like a defensive child who doesn’t care. America is divided and it feels like we’re on the brink of something terrifying. Ignoring the masses of people and their voices will be a big mistake. Are you listening, Mr President?