Politicians in the dock: Iceland’s unique approach to political accountability

So Greece has been saved (temporarily) after the biggest forgiveness of debt in human history (a cool €106bn so far), the markets are calmer than they’ve been for months. And all is right with the world.

Greece's Former Prime Minister George Papandreou attempted to steer his country through turbulent times Credit: Reuters

Well, right-ish. If you ignore the fact that the Greek economy is still twisting in a death spiral towards Eurogeddon, the Spanish economy shows signs of following the same path, and the next time Greece (or Ireland for that matter) says it can’t pay its debts, it will be Joe-taxpayer rather than some mega-bank picking up the tab. Even if this is the end of the crisis, as the Panglossian-tendency in Brussels would have us believe, who is going to be held to account?

‘What?’ I hear you say. ‘Politicians being made to pay a price for their incompetence/recklessness/venality/corruption? Unheard of!’

Well, almost unheard of. One small corner of Europe, a corner so far away that many forget it’s part of our benighted continent, is proving that wrong. Plucky Iceland, the first to succumb to the financial tsunami of 2008, is in the process of trying its former Prime Minister on charges of gross negligence, for which he could be jailed for up to two years. I don’t know a great deal about Iceland, but after hearing this, by golly I wanted to know more!

Iceland's former Prime Minister Geir Haarde will stand trial for gross negligence Credit: Reuters

Iceland was hit very hard by trying to mix it with the financial big-boys, in fact so hard that it went bankrupt. Rather like Greece, in fact. But, unlike Greece, it didn’t try and pretend that it wasn’t bankrupt. It said to the world ‘sorry guys, we can’t pay and we won’t pay. So bad luck Britain, who we owe £3.2bn, you ain’t goning to get it. Nor you, Holland. And while we’re at it, we are devaluing our currency and nationalising our banks and starting all over again.'

The result has been a rapid return to economic growth (4.4% last year), which is another very big difference with Greece, now in its 5th successive year of recession. OK, it’s a very small economy and a very small population, but are there really no lessons for the rest of us?

Anyway, back to the political trial of the decade in which former Prime Minister Geir Haarde is defending his record, not before the court of public opinion, but before a real court. He reckons that the trial will vindicate him, insisting that “only in hindsight is it evident that not everything was as it should have been”. Ah, but they all say that, don’t they? ‘How could I possibly have known? Who could possibly have predicted?’, they say, ignoring those who not only could, but did, predict that good times would not last for ever. ‘What goes up must come down’ is surely the oldest prediction known to man, isn’t it?

We don’t try and punish our politicians in the courts, well not national ones anyway. Local councillors (viz Lady Porter in Westminster) can still be held personally and legally responsible for decisions so egregious that they cost their local authority money. But would we ever put Gordon Brown on trial for selling almost 400 tons of our gold reserves at roughtly $275 and ounce when they’d fetch $1,700 an ounce today? Or Norman Lamont for costing us £10bn on Black Wednesday in 1992? We wouldn’t and we don’t, but you have to admit, it’s an idea.

Gordon Brown sold off a large part of Britain's gold reserves Credit: Reuters

Extend the principle across Europe and the prisons could really start to fill. Those who lied through their teeth to get their country into the Euro? Those who knew they were lying but went along with it because this was a ‘political’ rather than ‘economic’ project?

They may be small, these Icelanders, but when it comes to concentrating political minds, they may be on to something.

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