New Year's Address 2003
"What does the new year's blessed sun bode?" the Rev. Matthías Jochumsson asked in one of his poems, and the same thought is now with each and every one of us.
"It bodes us nature's Christmastide,
it brings us life and healing force,
it shines with the warmth of godly grace."
Thus the poet answered his own question. Jochumsson did not need to be clairvoyant to be able to give that answer. It was not a prophecy, but a certainty. By this time Matthías Jochumsson had vanquished the doubt that had sometimes beset him in the past. He had weathered that storm. He was safe, secure in the certainty that:
"In God's hand is every moment,
in God's hand is all our war,
the slightest hap, the greatest torment,
the gentle depths, the tiny tear.
In his omnipotent hand
lies the fortune of this cold land,
our cradle, path, our settlement and tomb,
though the ocean's far edge be our home."
Iceland was not prosperous in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when Matthías Jochumsson was most active. Far from it. Most of those years were times of hardship and tragedy, with little for people to live on. A good part of the nation, upright people but with scant means of support, saw no other way out of dire poverty than to leave their country and venture, destitute, into the unknown on the prairies of North America. That exodus sapped the nation.
But at the end of that period, Iceland received its first large helping of freedom at last – Home Rule, the centenary of which will be marked after just over a month. The first Icelandic Prime Minister, Hannes Hafstein, was ready to rise to the challenge when he assumed his position in the former Governor's office on "Baker's Hill". Today we take it for granted that Hannes Hafstein, bathed in the glory of history, was a natural candidate for that new office. But that was far from the truth. This is not the place to relate that story or the dramas and coincidences that left their mark on the course of events then. But whatever the background may have been, it is hardly disputed today that the choice of first Minister of Icelandic Affairs was particularly foresighted. Admittedly, I often feel that analyses of different nations' fortunes have tended to overestimate the role played by the individuals who occupy high office for a while. History is never woven from a single thread, and rarely from a few. However, strong and determined individuals can always exert a decisive influence over particular incidents and a limited sequence of events. If we look at the 24 people who have led this nation over the past hundred years, there is presumably no question that they have all had diverse talents, which is why they were all chosen for a leadership role. But I do not think it is a slight to any of them to say it proved crucial that the first of them should have had the qualities he did – so exceptionally gifted.
Many people naturally feel that there is much room for improvement in our society. Judging from the picture given by most of the articles contributed to the newspapers from one day to the next, we might imagine that this country was one huge rubbish dump of squalor. Of course there is no need to be upset by that kind of bickering, ridiculous as it is. But when Hannes Hafstein looked out of his window in the new Government House he not only knew, just as we do today, that much remained to be done. Everywhere he looked around the country he could see that virtually everything remained to be done. All the same, his soul and his heart were aglow on that February morning in 1904. Why? Because he could tell that, at last, the precondition had been achieved for progress in this country which had been stagnant for so long. And that was that precondition? Freedom. Freedom was the impetus that had been lacking all that time. The Icelanders had certainly entertained vague hopes and had their dreams and longings, but the right to take the initiative and the duty to take action did not rest on the right shoulders until the Home Rule government took office. Iceland had little in the way of assets and its energy did not exactly seem to be full of drive, but this did not discourage the first Prime Minister, who knew in his heart that a turning point had now been reached. In his old age in north Iceland, Matthías Jochumsson sensed this too. From his letters to Hannes Hafstein we can read his expectations – even his certainty of triumph, now that everything fell into place: providence, freedom and his ambitious, sharp-minded fellow-poet, who had been entrusted with running the first lap in Iceland's marathon from destitution to a better life. The lead that other countries had over Iceland was not measured in metres then but in decades or centuries, but that did not matter, for Iceland had set off and could run with the torch on its own terms at last.
Hannes Hafstein greatly valued his letters of encouragement from the Reverend Jochumsson. He was not yet the Prime Minister of Iceland when he answered one of these letters with these words:
"We need belief in our own force,
character, future, devoted duty,
need to run fast along our course,
shed all complaint and all self-pity,
need to remember hardship's woe
that inspires us to brave deeds and bold,
need to forget deaths long ago,
and reach for glory the future will hold."
Hannes Hafstein's leadership skills, his unfailing courage and optimism, his inspiring assurance of triumph in the face of countless difficulties, drove the nation forward at the start of a new century. But even qualities such as these would not have been enough if freedom had not provided its impulse too. It is healthy for us all to remember this on such a momentous occasion. Because the battle for freedom has not been won and never will be, although it has changed. And now the problem of preserving and consolidating liberty is more complex than ever before. Because now the nation no longer faces a distant, stubborn, foreign opponent that it can rally against. Now the battle is an internal one. We are tackling ourselves, and that is trickier. We need to make sure for ourselves that the drive and vigour inherent in human freedom are allowed to flourish. But freedom will be of little avail if it belongs only to the few, not to the many. If we do not know how to handle it, if we abuse or misuse it, it will gradually become constricted, until the point is reached when it ceases to matter whether its roots are near or far, in the centre of Reykjavík or in Copenhagen. Then we would be back on square one.
In the same way as it did almost a hundred years ago, greater freedom of enterprise and initiative has instilled new energy into the whole of Icelandic society for a fairly long time now. Fortunately, general prosperity has grown at the same time, on a scale never witnessed before. The precondition for a reasonable degree of social accord is not to swerve from this course. That accord, in turn, is the precondition for lasting economic growth in Iceland. At the moment, the largest construction project in the history of Iceland is under way. This was not achieved without conflicts and disputes. Fortunately, let us say, because it would have been a peculiar display of nationwide lethargy if such a major project had not inspired heated debate, arguments and counterarguments. Measure have been taken to ensure that, while this large-scale construction programme is under way, the natural environment is being treated with the utmost caution – partly because of how controversial the project was.
Those who saw this investment as crucial for the economy had their way in the end. But those who disagreed did not campaign for their cause in vain. This controversy is history now, and it has not put an end to all controversy. Major and minor issues will lead to conflicts as before. There is no question about that. The crucial point is that our small nation manages to settle issues and then rally round. This is why we have made such great progress, as shown by what we have achieved, and rank among the world's leading nations by most general criteria.
We all welcome the fact that central government debt is now rapidly diminishing, and thereby the debt service burden. This enables us collectively to allocate more funds towards desirable issues such as education and the health service, without needing to raise taxes. In fact it has been promised that the present term of office will be a period of major tax cuts. Of course, that promise will be kept. This does not mean, however, that there will be any reduction in the services that we agree should be provided. What it does mean is that a larger proportion of the foreseeable economic growth should accrue directly to people in this country without being channelled through the Treasury. In other words, people believe that they do not necessarily spend their own money any worse than the leaders whom they elect every four years to pass laws on their behalf. In my mind there is no doubt that this faith is founded on valid arguments.
I have devoted much of this time with you now to the centenary of Home Rule and the part played by Iceland's first Prime Minister. In commemoration of a different event – although it too was a centenary – Hannes Hafstein wrote a poem, the final verse of which I feel is an appropriate way to address him on this occasion:
"You, who with love and energy knew
how to swell the culture of this frozen earth,
entwine the words you love most true
into a memorial laurel wreath.
Pray that Iceland's culture and tongue
may reach maturity, rich and strong.
Let us all follow the path you showed!
May your noble work burst into bud."
For the thirteenth time, I have had the opportunity to talk to you at the end of the year. This will change now. It will be more of a turning-point for me than for you. I thank you for your company during the year that is drawing to a close and hope that the New Year will be rich in blessings and comfort for all of you. Happy New Year.