Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir - extended interview

The Icelandic prime minister talks to the NS about scrambling to rescue an economy under pressure fr

Click here to see the interview as it appeared in this week's magazine.

How has your first year as prime minister been?
I have always worked hard, and seeing so many Icelanders make tremendous efforts to cope with difficult tasks and decisions inspires me to press for further reforms and to achieve concrete results. First, our aim is to revitalise the economy, balance the state finances and get troubled companies and families on their feet again. This cannot be done without facing the facts, identifying the reasons for the crash and determining who is responsible. Second, the government is taking decisions on law enforcement and changes in our governmental institutions in order to prevent a possible new meltdown in our financial system in the coming decades. Third, by reinforcing democratic processes, promoting better and more responsible governance and a reorganisation of the civil service, the government is opening a new path towards a better society, grounded in the ideals of the Nordic welfare state.

There is still a lot of anger in Iceland about the country's financial collapse. What are the next steps?
Feelings are mixed. Icelanders are both angry and full of sorrow and anxiety. They feel betrayed in many ways by the state, by the banks and by our allies. But the anger is also directed inwards - at ourselves as individuals and as a nation. Why did Icelanders let this happen? Sorting out those feelings will be a long and difficult process. This month, the findings of the parliamentary inquiry into the crash will be published and it's up to the Althing [national parliament] and the government to respond properly and in a trustworthy manner. An extensive judicial process into possible misconduct by financial institutions and other principal players is also ongoing. This will all take time but eventually the reckoning will take place and those suspected of misdoings will be prosecuted. At the same time, the government is pressing on with extensive reform of the financial markets and a radical restructuring of the civil service and the state institutions, in order to ensure that the collapse will not be repeated in the foreseeable future.

How is your relationship with Gordon Brown, given the disagreements over Icesave?
I met him briefly at the COP15 meeting in Copenhagen. We have exchanged letters and spoken on the telephone last week, and our officials have maintained contact. In our conversation last Tuesday, I explained the present situation in Iceland regarding the Icesave bill.

The Icesave bill, and the underlying agreement with Britain, was passed by the Icelandic parliament on 30 December, but the president of Iceland deferred the bill to a national referendum to be held less than two months from now. That is his constitutional right, albeit highly unusual usage of the presidential powers. Mr Gordon Brown was of course disappointed by this delay, but declared his will to continued co-operation with the Icelandic government concerning those difficult circumstances. He expressed the same sentiments regarding Iceland's EU bid, as Foreign Minister David Miliband also conveyed to Iceland's foreign minister, Össur Skarphéðinsson, last week.

Countries have interests and diplomacy is usually not personal, but many Icelanders feel that last year Prime Minister Brown went beyond what can be justified by the protection of British national interests. In addition, the application of anti-terror legislation against a peaceful neighbour and Nato ally is unprecedented. I am convinced that, in a similar situation, the government of the UK would not apply this particular legislation against a larger European country. All of this needs to be discussed openly, while we move forward in repairing bilateral relations.

Are you still seeking to discuss the Icesave issue with him face to face?
In my discussions with Prime Minister Brown, I declared myself ready to meet him if we [both] deemed it productive to clarify and mend the relations between our countries.

What do you expect the outcome of the referendum to be?
The national referendum is in accordance with Iceland's constitution, and that deserves to be respected both at home and in other democratic neighbour countries. I'm convinced that the Icelandic voters will reach the right decision and, on that basis, we will keep on with our recovery plan, hopefully in good co-operation with the international community. You don't contest the judgement of the voters in a democratic society.

Is the request that Iceland repay its bankers' debts reasonable?
Understandably, almost every Icelander finds it unreasonable that Icelandic taxpayers should have to pay thousands of pounds each for a failed private bank, because of mistakes the taxpayers had nothing to do with. But someone has to pay, and the question is really how this burden should be divided between the parties involved.

Iceland has always maintained that the EU regulation on depositors' insurance is flawed, in the sense that it doesn't have relevance in a system crisis where the financial institutions of a country crash at one go. The regulatory bodies of the Netherlands and Britain should also be held accountable for their faulty control of the Icelandic bank Landsbanki in their respective countries. Up to now, we have been pretty isolated in this view, but we will keep on speaking for our opinions on this issue.

If Iceland does not repay its bankers' debts, is there a risk that the country will become an international pariah?
The parliament and three successive governments have stated that Iceland remains committed to honouring its obligations. However, the Icesave case has been deeply contested in Iceland, given the enormous economic burden involved.

If you take into consideration Iceland's progress in 2009 in implementing the economic recovery programme supported by the International Monetary Fund, the prolongation of the conclusion of the Icesave issue is a certain setback. However, Iceland's fundamentals remain strong -- Iceland will recover. We stay in close contact with the governments of the UK and the Netherlands, Nordic and other partner countries, and with the EU and the IMF, in order to explain the issue and the next steps.

How will Iceland's economy change, post-crash?
In future, the Icelandic economy will be based on sustainable use of its fishing stocks and energy resources, and the ingenuity and strength of its well-educated, vibrant, young population. The economy will not return to the flammable combination of high leverage and unbridled risk-taking that drove us into the financial crisis we are now overcoming.

Our international competitive sectors, including tourism, have rapidly become more important over the past 12 months. These sectors will continue to be of high importance and push the economy onwards to rapid recovery. Most importantly, we are restructuring a more stable economy that is returning to its roots as a Nordic welfare state.

To this end, I put great faith in the EU accession negotiations that we hope will start in early 2010. Membership of the European Union and adoption of the euro would secure the already extensive success we have made in restructuring and rebuilding our economy.

What benefits would EU membership bring?
Our goal in the membership negotiations is to reach an agreement that is in accordance with Iceland's fundamental interests as defined by the Althing. Recent polls indicate that public opinion is divided about EU membership, but I expect the nation to approve an agreement if a solution is found regarding fisheries and agriculture. We have been members of the European Single Market for 15 years through the European Economic Area Agreement, as well as being members of the Schengen Agreement, and I believe that the benefits are appreciated in my country.

EU membership will build confidence as regards the future of the Icelandic economy and give a clear sign of direction. This is very important in the light of the circumstances. In addition, we would gain a voice within EU institutions and be able to rely on European solidarity. Prices of certain consumer goods should fall, and the EU's regional policy would be beneficial to the remote regions of Iceland.

Membership would also allow for adoption of the euro, which would reduce the costs we pay to maintain the world's smallest independent currency. We would expect less economic volatility, lower interest rates and funding costs closer to those enjoyed by other European economies.

Your economic "stability pact" received a mixed response from trade unions. As a former union organiser, do you still feel loyal to them?
Times in Iceland are hard for everyone and the trade unions feel the burden of accepting wage cuts, cuts in social expenditure and the rise in income taxes. Nevertheless, they are taking full part in stabilising the economy for the common good.

The trade unions participate in managing the pensions funds, which are fully funded by 10 per cent of the pool of wages each year, and they manage capital the equivalent of 150 per cent of GNP. These funds play an important role in Iceland, as they give us means to invest in large-scale infrastructure programmes, which will raise the employment level in the difficult times ahead. I have given my word on implementing the stability pact, and despite all obstacles I will do my best.

Your government is 50 per cent female. Is equality important to your vision for Iceland?
Definitely! My long experience in politics tells me that egalitarian policies are the best way to unite and empower people, and are also a necessary counterweight to the sometimes dividing and detrimental influence of market forces. A society that does not use the intellectual power of its female population fully is not a wise society. Women are now the majority of students in the Icelandic universities, and 43 per cent of our MPs.

We have to use all our resources to bounce back from the recession and we expect women to take their full part in the new era. Most women are not as tainted by mistakes in the conduct of the economy as the male population, and now they deserve an opportunity. We are determined to achieve gender equality in the political sphere but, unfortunately, the corporate side is still lacking. This is odd, because international research shows that companies with a sound gender policy are better run and more profitable than male-dominated companies. We are prepared to introduce legislation that would actively encourage the private sector to adopt a wiser and more effective gender policy.

By the way, it's not a coincidence that the World Economic Forum recently ranked Iceland first in its annual, 134-country survey of gender equality, followed closely by Norway, Finland and Sweden. We would like to keep that position!

You called for Davíð Oddsson, the former head of Iceland's Central Bank, to stand down. He now edits the Morgunblaðið newspaper. How do you feel about his current job?
It has become a quite common view that he has turned Morgunblaðið into a campaign organ for his own views, rather than a broad-minded newspaper on the right. His assignment is a decision the owners of Morgunblaðið have to stand by, and is not for me to comment on.

Iceland is already experiencing signs of climate change. What moves is your government making to combat it? How can those be reconciled with the need to focus on the economy?
The Icelandic government will soon publish its action plan for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, recovering wetlands and increasing forestation. In Iceland, renewable energy has supplied 90 per cent of the primary energy needs since 1999 -- proportionally more than any other country. Geothermal sources are also used to heat 89 per cent of our buildings.

Our aim is to become completely energy-independent, using 100 per cent renewable energy sources. This will take time but makes ecological and economic sense.

Following the oil crises in the 1970s, Iceland turned geothermal, and this has led to great savings in the national economy. Some estimates say Iceland is saving as much as a year's national income every 11 to 12 years by virtue of that foresight.

Is there a plan?
A plan provides focus, but it is not an end in itself.

What would you like to forget?
I would like to remember all and be able to forgive everything -- in due course!

Are we all doomed?
Our time is limited, but the spirit is free.

Click here to see the interview as it appeared in this week's magazine.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood