My fellow Icelanders,
Every individual has his own opinions. They talk of different things, and place variable emphasis on what is a vital issue, and what is a minor point. Some focus on what has gone wrong, what was not done, while others seek to learn lessons from what was successful and well done.
If the former, the pessimists, are asked about important events in Iceland fifty years ago, no doubt they will start talking about the rainy summer. And it is true that in the summer of 1955 there was a lot of rain in the south and west of the country. In fact it rained so much that in Hafnarfjörður, where a prize had been awarded the previous year for the most beautiful garden, it was decided that no prize would be awarded in 1955 due to the wet summer.
If members of the other, more optimistic, group are asked about important events in Iceland fifty years ago, they will probably mention that novelist Halldór Laxness received the Nobel Prize for Literature that year for "colourful writing which revived the Icelandic narrative art." This is undoubtedly the greatest recognition any Icelander has received; it led to enormous interest in Iceland and in our literary heritage, which is the strongest pillar of our independence as a nation, our pride and hope through centuries of poverty and adversity.
Which of these groups is more likely to make us feel better, to fill us with optimism and the will to advance? Those who see darkness at noon, or those who see light in the darkness? Who are better company? I think we all know theanswer.
Of course we don't live in a perfect society, any more than any other nation. We have many tasks to undertake, some of them urgent. Great profit and expansion have resulted from changes in society, not least on the financial market. The majority of the population have benefited from those changes, but not all. Freedom entails responsibilities and duties, and in a small society it is especially important that the stronger shoulder their social responsibilities, for the benefit of those who are less strong. The government, of course, bears the greatest responsibility, but not all. Businesses have a social responsibility, especially vis-à-vis their employees. They must utilise their profit for building up. It is natural for them to participate in important matters in the fields of culture and welfare. Not least, it is their duty to contribute finance to promote innovation and diversity in the economy. In this field they can contribute far more, not least the country’s largest financial businesses. The government wishes to collaborate with them for this purpose, and to create a suitable environment for this in the shape of reliable funds which we do not have today.
It will remain our task in the future to create new jobs and promote innovation in the economy. It will remain our task to ensure every person's possibilities for education. It will remain our task to build up a more powerful welfare system. And it will remain our task to nurture the youth of our country, and pass on to them a society as we would wish it to be. This all calls for cooperation and solidarity. Nobody may opt out.
But the tasks of today need not be problems. Pessimism and grumbling will not take us far on the road to progress.
"The true desire for progress, the restlessness in the mechanism of the progressive spirit, is full of confidence, hope and love; it does not flee, nor exterminate, nor destroy," said Minister for Iceland Hannes Hafstein in a speech a hundred years ago. The tasks of our time must be approached with optimism, courage and vigour, as our forefathers approached the tasks of their time, when they campaigned for the independence of the Icelandic nation, which we celebrate here today - and not with such negative and destructive talk as we so often hear.
On this day of celebration, we have reason to look up from our everyday concerns and consider our place in the community of nations. We generally use the word internationalisation for the transformation that has taken place in the world over the past two decades in most sectors of society. Societies have thrown off the yoke of tyranny and centralisation. Boundaries and restraints are vanishing, and the whole world is gradually becoming a single market. More open world trade has led to a broad range of interaction between different nations and cultures. Information passes at the speed of light across the globe, and distance has less and less significance.
Few nations have been left untouched by his international transformation. The Icelandic nation has not missed out on these changes, and it has been deeply influenced. It is not very many years since the Icelanders lived with an undiversified economy and runaway inflation, and relatively few had the opportunity to pursue an education. I am not at all sure that younger people necessarily realise this, and even their elders have a tendency to forget.
But we have had the good fortune to meet these changing times with foresight. Vastly increased funding to education has yielded well-educated, broad-minded people who attract attention for their skills and resourcefulness. We have removed trade barriers, and given daring people the chance to seize business opportunities which have arisen in the upheavals of a changing world order.
All around us we see people who advance with creative minds, free of all exterior hindrances. All around we see people who, after a long and demanding struggle with the forces of nature, are quick to adopt innovations. All around we see people who have made use of natural resources, and built an economic prosperity that is almost unparalleled. All around we see broad-minded people who, driven by a natural urge to see the world, have gained knowledge in the outside world, brought it home, put it to use and passed it on to others. All around we see people who can compete on equal terms with the citizens of huge nations.
An unprecedented range of studies is now available at the university level, and Iceland has never had as many university students as today. We have succeeded better than most other nations in ensuring that our young people can find work to suit them after completion of their education.
The authorities have been conscious of the importance of encouraging innovation among individuals and businesses, and they have introduced various measures to promote investment in innovation and start-up companies, but we wish to do even better in this field.
Human resources, the resources of tomorrow, have been developing greatly in our little nation. It is striking that by international standards the Icelanders are leaders in science and technology. The Icelanders are in fourth to sixth place of nations where the most rapid change is taking place in research and innovation. Last year about 25,000 Icelanders participated in entrepreneurship in Iceland, which is twice the average rate for other high-income countries, and comparable to the USA and Canada. Iceland is now in fourth place for competitiveness, and is now above all the other European nations.
These results are encouraging for us Icelanders, and an indication that we are on the right path. There is every reason for us to hold our heads high, but without becoming arrogant. Things certainly look bright for Iceland today. In fact we may say that we are living in a society that Jón Sigurðsson and his allies, the heroes of the campaign for independence, could only dream of and imagine – a society where freedom of thought, word and deed reigns. We can be proud of our achievements, which attract attention far outside our own borders. I am proud of the Icelandic nation, and grateful that I have had the opportunity to work with others to make our ideals a reality. The reforms that inspired our forefathers have become a reality. A reality which we must preserve and nurture, care for and respect. Thus we can best maintain the freedom and independence of Iceland.
It is important for us to use the gains of yesterday to encourage us to further achievements. The poet and entrepreneur Einar Benediktsson, knew this better than most. He said in his poem Aldamót (Turn of the Century):
"Það fagra sem var skal ei lastað og lýtt
en lyft upp í framför, hafið og prýtt.
Að fortíð skal hyggja, ef frumlegt skal byggja,
án fræðslu þess liðna sést ei hvað er nýtt."
(The beauty of old shall not be defamed or scorned
but raised up in progress, held aloft and adorned.
Think back to the past and invention's revealed:
Without learning what's gone, what's new stays concealed.)
Let us remember our past, yet look ahead, and consider how we may do even better, and promote even higher living standards in our country. But the standard of living is not only a matter of material values; it is no less concerned with democratic values. It is only 90 years since women won the right to vote, and to run for parliament, and full equality has not yet been achieved. We celebrate with the women of Iceland at this landmark in the campaign for their rights. I have high hopes of the work of the committee I appointed at the beginning of this year to revise the Icelandic constitution. It is natural, and necessary, that detailed debate take place on how best we may ensure this vital basis of our society.
It is also time to plan a review of government structure, to make it more efficient and up to date. The last major change in the organisation of government ministries was in 1969. While some alterations have been made since then, the essential organisation has remained the same. I feel it is important to begin such a review this autumn, and complete it rapidly. The time is not only ripe for this review; it is also naturally connected to other work in progress, whose object is to simplify the administration and make it more efficient and effective.
My fellow Icelanders,
Today our children are all smiles, beneath the Icelandic flag. This beautiful flag, which will celebrate its 90th birthday on Sunday. Their joy is our joy. Their future prospects are better than those of most of the world’s children. Optimism, tenacity and joy have shaped that future. It must never be spoiled by misery and pessimism.
Happy National Day!
Translation Anna Yates
Poem translated by Bernard Scudder