Corruption, but Quietly by Quentin Bates

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Somehow Iceland always scores somewhere near the top of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, even taking the top spot in some years. How do I know? Because it’s always proudly reported in the Icelandic media, as if this will convince Icelanders that they live in a corruption-free utopia.

Through the boom years leading up to 2008, Reykjavík sprawled in every direction with new housing estates shooting up like mushrooms and new roads were built at the same time, hardly keeping pace with the speed of new houses everywhere.

I’d taken a wrong turn and swung the tin box of an economy rental Toyota hurriedly off the roundabout that wasn’t there the last time I came here. That was a mistake. Turning off the roundabout and regaining my bearings, I saw the flash of blue lights in the mirror, let fall a suitable expletive or two, turned onto the forecourt of a filling station and waited for the police to start asking what the hell I’d been thinking.

I wound down the window (by hand, I said this was a cheap rental car) and was stunned by a smiling blonde apparition in uniform and mirror shades. It was as if Miss World had leaned into the car to speak to me personally.

‘Speak English, speak English, speak English,’ I muttered to myself as the goddess offered a cheerful hello.

‘Good morning, officer,’ I babbled in my finest bewildered English tourist mode. ’I’m really sorry if I took a bit of a sharp turn. I’ve managed to get lost. I’m heading for that factory over there.’ I waved towards to a grey building on the other side of the road and the goddess nodded, clearly understanding this hapless foreigner’s confusion.

‘Your driving licence and passport, please?’

I handed both over, repressing the urge to shove both hands out of the window and yell ‘go on, cuff me! I’ll do whatever you want…’ as she examined my documents.

‘You are here on business or for pleasure?’

‘Er, both, actually.’

The ‘actually’ made me sound like a muddle-headed Englishman played by Hugh Grant, but without the floppy hair. The goddess nodded and handed back my documents.

‘Have a nice time in Iceland,’ she said, unleashing another heart-melting smile and was gone. I consoled myself with the thought that if I’d spoken Icelandic, then I’d probably have been given a whopping fine for a traffic infringement.

Iceland is in fact a startlingly corrupt place, but with a unique brand of corruption that presumably doesn’t register on Transparency International’s sensors. Saying that, I’d be interested to shadow one of their researchers around Reykjavík one day.

Icelandic corruption doesn’t permeate society as a whole. It starts at the top and doesn’t seem to trickle all the way down. While Jón Jónsson probably wouldn’t go out of his way to point out to the taxman that he didn’t deserve quite that much of a tax rebate – not that Iceland’s tax authorities are keen to let go of cash these days – if I’d been ill-advised enough to slip a $100 bill into my passport that day, at best it would have been frostily handed back and at worst I’d have found myself in a cell.

But if the situation had been different, if the amount had been a telephone number and dressed up as a consultancy fee, and the ice-blonde goddess in mirror shades had been a high-ranking civil servant, a member of the government or the banking establishment, then things could have been very different.

Government at every level has for decades been riddled with a peculiar Icelandic brand of corruption that ensures that to get ahead, you have to belong to the right party, or have been to college or university with the right people, or be related to the right families. There used to be talk of the ‘Octopus’ and its tentacles stretching through every facet of business and politics, with the close links a handful of influential families had with prominent political figures. In a little country with a population the size of Croydon’s, conflicts of interest are almost unavoidable, but instead of making efforts to steer clear, cronyism and nepotism have long been standard practice.

In the last decade, many of the Octopus’s many tentacles were severed, or simply lost, but instead of withering away, the fresh, brisk wind of neo-liberalism just paved the way for a brash young Octopus and the desperate need to privatise and harness every iota of capital.

The mandarins of government had already gone as far as they could to privatise fishing rights, and followed this by selling off a trio of largely state-owned banks. The results could almost have been predicted. The banks weren’t sold to people best qualified to run them or with impeccable track records in business, but handed to the ‘right’ people with their party loyalties in the right place.

It sounded fishy at the time, but as Iceland was an affluent country with booming employment and a top-rate standard of living, nobody took a great deal of notice. Jón Jónsson didn’t bother reading the small print and took the loans offered to buy a second home, a new kitchen, a smart jeep, a horse or two and a stable, a caravan, a couple of holidays in the sun – or that abiding symbol of overstretched borrowing, a monster flat screen TV with surround sound.

It wasn’t until interest rates started to soar that the Icelandic public realised what was happening, as it had taken less than a decade for these smart guys to bankrupt all three banks, while the authorities carefully looked the other way and absolutely refused to heed any warnings.

It makes you wonder if there is anywhere else where corruption is so pervasive at the top, as most Icelanders will cheerfully agree that the governmental class as a whole is riddled with people on the take, while Jón Jónsson stoically accepts it, swallows his pride and does his best to keep up the spiralling mortgage payments?

What is remarkable is that while some of those who are responsible for the Crash have taken the money and run to live abroad, mostly in London, there are a good few who still live in Iceland. Shortly after the Crash, one of them was jostled by a few angry people in the street. Recently another was insulted in a restaurant. But that’s as far as it goes. It’s a testament to how honest, peaceable and law-abiding Icelanders are that the people who robbed them blind can live safely in their midst.

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