We can learn from Iceland's crash – and their recovery

Iceland's PM isn't the only one guilty of ignoring the evidence that a crisis was coming.

Let’s confess, it felt good to see a Prime Minister criminally charged for the financial mismanagement of his country, as happened to Iceland’s Geir Haarde. But it also seems fair that he was convicted only of negligence.

After all, he and his government had full policy cover from mainstream economists like Richard Portes (ex-President of the Royal Economic Society) in the bubbly lead-up to the banking collapse in October 2008. Professors Portes and Baldursson co-authored a November 2007 report for the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce, in which they concluded that:

. . . the Icelandic economy and financial sector are highly resilient. . . With regard to both the macroeconomic situation and the characteristics and performance of the banks, we consider that the current market premium on Icelandic banks is excessive relative to their risk exposure and in comparison with their Nordic peers. . . Overall, the internationalisation of the Icelandic financial sector is a remarkable success story that the markets should better acknowledge.

The authors made similar points in a letter to the Financial Times in July 2008 – just 3 months before the crash!

No wonder then that Mr Haarde argues that

None of us realised at the time that there was something fishy (sic) within the banking system as now appears to have been the case.

Moreover, he added, "nobody predicted that there would be a financial collapse in Iceland."

Well, that last point is not quite true. Many did, like Professor Robert Wade. In my book The Coming First World Debt Crisis (2006) I drew attention to a report by Danske Bank which flashed strong warning lights:

Iceland seems not only to be overheating, but also looks very dependent on the willingness-to-lend of global financial markets. This raises the question of whether the economy is facing not just a recession but also a severe financial crisis.

Yet if Iceland got it all wrong in the lead-up to the October 2008 banking collapse, the country (which still has its own currency) has since done much that is interesting and positive, ignoring or going against the counsel of orthodox economists:

  • Iceland nationalised the domestic parts of its banks, and allowed the non-domestic parts to go bankrupt

  • Iceland looked after its own citizens first, and refused to be bullied by the UK and the Netherlands demanding preferential treatment for non-existent ‘loans’ at usurious rates of interest

  • Iceland’s President responded to popular dissatisfaction with proposed deals with the UK and the Netherlands, by allowing a democratic vote – which confirmed overwhelming opposition

  • Iceland imposed capital controls to stop hot money flows into or out of the country.

  • It gave special protection to home-owners threatened by banks foreclosing.

Despite (because of) all the above, GDP grew by 2.7 per cent in 2011, and unemployment - though high at 6.9 per cent - is far below the current EU average of 10.2 per cent. The IMF’s latest country report (March 2012) states

Iceland’s post-crisis recovery has taken hold. After two years of recession, growth turned positive in 2011, led by domestic demand. The labor market improved, although the unemployment rate remains high… A moderate economic expansion is projected going forward.

So compared with the Eurozone, Iceland is not doing so badly. And compared to Ireland, which has followed very different policies, it’s steaming ahead. Ireland’s GDP rose by 0.7 per cent in 2011, and unemployment is now double Iceland’s at 14.7 per cent. Given that many of Europe’s governments are now run by unaccountable technocrats, the same ones that developed the kind of policies that brought Iceland down, one must congratulate the people of this small country for insisting on the democratic accountability of its political class.

Iceland's former Prime Minister Geir Haarde speaks to the press during his trial. Photograph: Getty Images
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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