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.)
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle