Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Sovereignty for us all

We who live together on this northerly island often evoke the concept of nationhood when we mark certain milestones in our history. The idea of a nation originated in the middle ages, but it has evolved since that time; in that era a “nation” was not a political unit, as it is today. In past times the people of this country defined themselves as Westerners, Dalesmen or Mýrar folk – or even identified themselves by the name of a farm, or as part of some clan, such as the Sturlungs or the Ásbjörn or Oddi clan. They would only be “Icelanders” when travelling abroad; and they might be called Northmen (lumped together with Norwegians), or Norsemen when they went father afield. By the same token, those who made their way to Iceland from Norway, Sweden, Denmark or Finland were termed, collectively, Eastmen.

The concept of nationhood, in the sense in which we use it today, is a 19th-century construct, primarily a political term, based on the principle of defining a society in terms of certain values deemed to typify it – and also in terms of specific shared rights. When a monarch abdicates his or her absolute powers, the power passes to another body: the nation. At that point the concept of a nation has to be defined; prior to that time there was no need for a nation – only for subjects.

In this country, Icelandic nationality has generally been defined by such terms as “land, nation, language,” the inference being that the people of Iceland are a homogeneous group who all speak the same language, and who collectively own this unique island. These values played a prominent role in the Icelandic campaign for self-determination in the 19th century, while emphasis was also placed on other, more mundane, aspects of autonomy.

When Jón Sigurðsson, architect of the campaign for self-determination, referred to Icelandic autonomy, he meant that Iceland should have its own independent educational system, trade, and administration. In other words, Jón saw it as being in the Icelanders’ interest for decisions to be made in Iceland, in proximity with the people of the country.

In the years before Iceland became a sovereign nation, huge strides had been made in these fields: the first Education Act was passed in 1907, and took effect in 1908. Prior to that time the teaching of children and young people had been the responsibility of parents and guardians, under the supervision of the parish clergy. In the early 20th century educationalist Guðmundur Finnbogason wrote  a report on the poor state of public education in Iceland, and at that time the foundations were laid for the Education Act and the establishment of a teacher training college. In 1911 the University of Iceland was founded. In 1904 Iceland won Home Rule, with a Minister for Iceland based in the country. Free Trade had been gained in 1855.

Following negotiation of the Union Treaty in the summer of 1918, on 1 December that year Denmark recognised Iceland as a free and sovereign nation. At that point Icelanders largely took over governance of their own affairs, and a quarter of a century later they took the final step, as was their right under the Union Treaty and as a sovereign nation: they founded the Republic of Iceland, at Þingvellir in the summer of 1944, symbolically choosing Jón Sigurðsson’s birthday for the historic event.

Now, a hundred years on from Icelandic sovereignty, much has changed. Are our values the same as those that inspired the campaign for self-determination? Are Jón Sigurðsson’s arguments equally valid in this international age? Do we who live in this country define ourselves as Icelanders? Or Reykjavík people, or Þistilfjörður folk? Or labourers, seamen and farmers? Or comic-book nerds, outdoor fanatics or latte-guzzling hipsters?

In a time of growing diversity – and increased fragmentation – in society, we have good reason to consider the values we should build upon, and the arguments to be adduced, in our efforts to safeguard and reinforce our sovereignty. A milestone such as the centenary of national sovereignty provides us with an excellent opportunity to do so.

The land belongs to us, and we must nurture and protect it. Unspoiled nature is a crucial element; economic development over the past hundred years has had a vast impact on our natural resources. In recent years, nature conservation has won growing support, as more and more people realise the value of the Icelandic wilderness. We must establish a long-term policy regarding the natural resources that belong to us collectively, and our responsibility as citizens of the community of nations in combating global warming. 

We still have our language – although Icelandic is under threat in various fields. Only the people of this country, who are native speakers of Icelandic or have learned it as a foreign language, can fight the good fight in its defence. It is heartening that we now have a funded action plan on language technology, which aims to open the digital world up to Icelandic: the first step of many we must take to safeguard our language.

And what about the nation? Well, the nation is still here, but very different from what it was a hundred years ago. Icelanders are more diverse, including people with origins in all corners of the world: of varying backgrounds, ethnicity and culture. How can we all embrace each other better, and rejoice that our nation is now more diverse than ever before? It is essential to build up a good society, guided by principles of improved wellbeing. In such a society, the Icelandic cultural heritage is not all that matters. All of society is enriched by the contribution of people whose background and values are quite different, and have much to offer Icelandic culture.

We must seize the opportunity offered by this milestone, the centenary of Icelandic sovereignty, to re-evaluate and reinforce our shared values: to build on the strong foundation we have, and the ideal of a free and democratic society where human rights are honoured, equality of opportunity is ensured, and we safeguard the wellbeing of all the people of this country.

Democracy, freedom, equality and justice are values that unite the sovereign nation of Iceland, which nurtures its land and its language, and also celebrates diversity and difference.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir