Wednesday, 11 July 2012


Back in March I noted with interest that the trial of Iceland's former Prime Minister Geir Haarde, who was accused of negligence in his handling of the 2008 financial crisis that severely undermined the Icelandic economy, had begun in the capital, Reykjavik. A sizeable part of me thinks that it is quite refreshing for elected politicians to face real consequences for their actions? I mention this again because of the ongoing consequences of the embarrassing childlike spat between Osborne and Balls, which has served to provide a degree of distraction from New Labour and the Conservative party’s cosy relationship with the bankers and the City.

Now as most people know Iceland fell into recession when the country's major banks, including on-line bank Icesave's parent company Landsbanki, crashed in the autumn of 2008. Icelanders awoke to find that they owed six times the island's total gross domestic product (GDP), the world's credit markets promptly dried up, they were left high and dry unable to refinance loans. Iceland’s big three banks, who's business web stretched across Europe (with customers that included Welsh local authorities), collapsed under billions of dollars of debt.

Iceland’s economy had largely been based on and around fishing, but in the 1990s, the banks boomed and expanded abroad and Icelanders got cheap credit (just like the rest of us) with next to no regulation. After the crash, the unemployment rate and inflation sky-rocketed, and on the domestic political front all hell broke loose. A huge wave of angry public protests followed and the then Prime Minister Geir Haarde’s government fell in 2009.

The ex Prime Minster was accused of negligence because he had not ensured financial safeguards were in place. He has denied the accusation, saying he was only doing what he thought was best for the country at the time. The ex PM could face up to two years in the slammer if convicted. Ironically he was one of four politicians blamed in a 2010 parliament-commissioned report for contributing to the country's financial collapse, yet is the only one on trial.

In September 2010, the Icelandic Parliament decided that only the ex Pm should be tried on charges relating to the financial crisis, the trial began in March (2012) and ended with a guilty verdict (in April 2012). From here it certainly looks like the former PM was left carrying the can as two current ministers (Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir and Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson) were not referred to the court, along with some of his former colleagues including the former foreign, finance and business ministers.

In the March 2010, Icelandic voters rejected overwhelmingly via a referendum the proposal to pay the UK and the Netherlands 4 billion euros (£3.4 billion) they lost when the Icesave bank collapsed. The Icelandic citizens view was that they should not be made to pay so much for their banks' bad decisions. Now this is a feeling that I suspect is shared by most of us, save for our elite who are busy making the rest of us pay off their mistakes and the mistakes of their friends at length.

Now where, save in Iceland have the ordinary people had a direct opportunity to pass judgement on any of the deals done to bail out the banks. Back in December 2010, Iceland the UK and the Netherlands agreed a new repayment deal. Iceland's parliament (in February 2011) voted yes to a plan to repay the UK and the Netherlands for reimbursing 400,000 citizens who lost their savings in the collapse of Icesave's parent bank, Landsbanki. Iceland's president, Olafur Grimsson, then put the deal to a public vote. In April 2011, the voters of Iceland once again rejected the repayment deal in a referendum. I wonder how the voters would have voted if we had been given a choice on bailing out the banks?

Anyway while Iceland fell into one of the most severe recessions anywhere in the world when the markets crashed in 2008 and economic output fell by around 12 per cent in two years. Yet despite this Iceland did not fall, an International Monetary Fund reports show that growth has resumed. GDP is expected to increase by a relatively healthy 2.5 per cent in 2011. The Icelandic public finances are on a sustainable path too with government debt projected to fall to 80 per cent of GDP in 2016.

Iceland's output is still more than 10 per cent down when compared to pre-crisis levels. The country's unemployment level is around 6.7 per cent, this is considerably higher than it was pre 2007. The Icelandic standard of living is also well down and there is limited access to foreign currency. The risks to recovery still remain and Icelandic Central bank interest rates are currently going up in order to curb inflation, something that could have an impact on growth. Yet despite all of this the outlook for the Icelandic economy looks much healthier than some other distressed economies in Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Plaid Cymru believes that only a full public inquiry can offer an adequate response to a scandal on such a scale. A parliamentary inquiry could bring senior figures from the last New Labour administration to the dock under oath. Surely Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, and Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, their former economic advisers, would relish a chance to clear their names by being called to account for their actions.

Both New Labour and the Conservatives have been (and still are) entirely fixated with putting the market before people regardless of the cost. A parliamentary inquiry could at least shine a light on the City’s murky dealings. Sadly both New Labour and the Conservatives are still entirely hooked on high finance and dazzled by the City’s dodgy money men, so we may have a long wait before we start to see politicians giving evidence in the dock.

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