Icelanders don’t easily come to the boil. The demonstrations outside Parliament in 2009 that contributed to bringing down the government were remarkable not for the number of people present or the clear frustration and anger on display, but for the fact that they took place at all.
The last demonstrations that had taken place prior to that were a full sixty years before and Lemurinn (the Lemur), an Icelandic website that delights in the unusual and the odd, has published a set of pictures taken in 1949 when tear gas was used on a demonstration in broad daylight. Take a look here.
It’s remarkable how peaceful everything looks to begin with. People, virtually all of them men, stand in polite lines and take care not to step on the grass, to begin with, at least. Only a few years after independence from Denmark that followed centuries of colonial rule and a regime that also saw the dominance of a pseudo-aristocratic clique of wealthy Icelanders who certainly didn’t want their fellow countrymen to have too much freedom or prosperity, Icelanders of the 1940s were clearly well-behaved, up to the point that the rocks started flying and the tear gas came out.
In 1949 the government headed by Stefán Jóhann Stefánsson took Iceland into NATO and the decision was a thoroughly controversial one. Between eight and ten thousand people, a possibly highly ambitious estimate, were reckoned to have gathered on Austurvöllur square to protest and the police reacted with tough tactics as the windows of the Parliament building were shattered by flying stones.
Not everyone was happy at being pulled into NATO without being asked, and it largely cemented the position of the US base down the road at Keflavík, established during the wartime occupation, from where military flights could patrol the North Atlantic for Soviet activity.
There were demonstrations up until the end of the Cold war, although these tended to be far more peaceful affairs as opponents of the presence of the US base would march along the road from Keflavík with banners and chants. The protests were vocal, but were hardly taken too seriously and bore little relation to the real anger of the 1949 events. The protesters were seen as hippies and left-wing cranks, although there was a strong undercurrent of opinion that agreed with them. Not that too many of the Icelanders who had finally become prosperous were prepared to go and say so out loud. Panem et circenses in the form of newly-available TV, plenty of overtime for those who wanted it and the sudden transformation to a consumer society had dulled the desire to rock the boat, while in 1949 there had still been unemployment, short rations and the panacea of TV was still years away.
The protests against the US base fizzled out along with the Cold War, although it took quite a few years for the Americans to finally pack up. According to some accounts, it became a skirmish between the US military, which instinctively resisted any curtailing of even pointless activities, and the US government, which no longer saw a need to maintain a miniature American city in Iceland.
It was a blow for the Icelandic government of the time when the base finally did close. It hurt in terms of prestige, as the right-wing government that had also unreservedly supported the invasion of Iraq without even a Parliamentary debate was sure that the White House was its dear friend – and in financial terms as jobs were lost and whatever rent the Americans were paying suddenly dried up. It was also a blow to the government’s prestige that there was no discussion with the Americans on this, and it wasn’t even George Dubya himself who called the Prime Minister to tell him the news, just some under-secretary’s junior assistant who called to say so long before the US personnel were rapidly shipped home.
As I said, Icelanders don’t protest. They mutter, grumble and suck it up, do a little more overtime than they’re doing already or get yet another part-time job and cough up for those extra bills. If people want to protest about something, they’re more likely to start a blog or a Facebook group, or vent their anger through the comments boxes of newspapers’ websites or online fora. It takes a lot to get them out of the house, but it’s worth seeing when it does happen.
Is it likely to happen again? That’s anyone’s guess. 1949, then 2009. So the next outpouring of public anger shouldn’t be until 2069, but I have a feeling we won’t have that long to wait. The new government has taken only a matter of weeks to achieve a level of unpopularity that took the last government a year or two, so watch this space. Icelanders may be gradually acquiring something of a taste for protest, and we’ll see how long it is before the protests move from online to taking place on Austurvöllur. But when it does happen, it would be as well for those inside the Parliament building to take sit up and take notice, and remember that Icelanders have to be seriously pissed off before they take to the streets.