If you wanted to come up with a suitably Mephistophelean fictional character, you’d be hard pressed to come up with one as complex or one who is as loathed and adored in roughly equal measure as is Iceland’s former Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson.
Personally I’m no fan of the man. I used to be, a long time ago, even though his instincts and mine are clearly poles apart. Once Davíð Oddsson was the energetic young mayor of Reykjavík, and he did the job with an imaginative flair and and energy that meant that he had admirers on all sides, even among his political opponents. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, blue-blooded to the core and born into the very heart of Iceland’s conservative Independence Party. As a young man, and as the mayor of Reykjavík, he was clearly set for great things and cut a serious dash among the drab rest of the grey-faced, grey-suited conservatives.
Davíð could crack jokes, dish out repartee, hold his own in any debate, all with a smile on his face. He could even sing – and did so. He even wrote stories, and not half bad ones at that.
So what went sour? Or, depending on your colours, what went right?
Suddenly he wasn’t the mayor of Reykjavík any more. He was the Prime Minister. Ministers did as they were told. Davíð and his inner circle made the decisions. There was a ruthless new edge to him and his circle of cronies as they acted out a Thatcherite dream of privatisation. Everything that wasn’t nailed down was sold off with indecent haste. Government institutions were farmed out to the highest bidders. Semi-official bodies that had resided for years in dusty official backwaters and had been staffed by old-fashioned but knowledgeable people were virtually overnight ensconced in plate-glass offices where the new breed of smart businessmen in charge dreamed of billions. Fish quotas, enshrined in law as state property, were dealt out to the right people and in that disastrous move, the banks were given to friends and supporters of the two parties who were in power at the time. No matter that these people had no experience of finance and nothing to say they would make a decent fist of it, but these were the ‘right’ people.
All this happened piecemeal during Davíð Oddsson’s almost twenty-year reign, as he became an increasingly remote figure, a far cry from the approachable mayor who had made a point of being there for people if they needed him. He became older, greyer, less tolerant, less patient. He made the big decisions and apparently didn’t care who knew it, apparently increasingly out of touch with ordinary voters as he remained closeted with the coterie of intimates and the architects of Iceland’s metamorphosis into a neocon’s financial wet dream, albeit with a peculiarly Icelandic flavour of its own.
The Crash, when it finally hit, wasn’t on Davíð Oddsson’s watch. By then he had retreated, after having briefly swapped roles with the lugubrious Halldór Ásgrímsson, his Progressive Party opposite number and long-time Foreign Minister. By October 2008, when the banks that had been given away to the faithful hit the buffers at full tilt, Davíð Oddsson had already appointed himself head of the Central Bank; a post that anyone would have thought should be filled by someone who can do sums rather than a former politician with a legal background, as was evident when the banks went belly-up and the head of the Central Bank apparently had no idea it was about to happen. Or if he did, he wasn’t letting on. But Iceland is an odd place. In reality, the Central Bank had long been a comfortable berth for politicians winding down to retirement, as well as a way of pumping a bit of extra cash into their pensions.
Post-Crash, and with a new government of dangerous lefties in place, our man gracelessly refused to go when asked to, and had to be carried virtually kicking and screaming into retirement. Not that it lasted long. When Iceland’s main newspaper, Morgunblaðið, was acquired by a group of businessmen with an agenda of their own that clearly coincided with Davíð’s, that’s who they brought in as editor in a move as incongruous as Tricky Dicky having been installed to edit the Washington Post in the wake of Watergate.
Since then he has been busily writing his own version of history on its pages, but as a shadow of the brilliance and wit of his younger self. These days it’s a petulant, frustrated version of the man writing Morgunblaðið’s leaders, not least a recent description of youthful left-wing education minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir as gluggaskraut (window dressing) that many thought both tasteless and far below his dignity.
As Enoch Powell, an acerbic British politician who is far from fashionable today but who had an exceptional clarity of insight, put it; ‘All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’
Has Davíð Oddsson’s political life ended in failure? Arguably he stayed in the job far too long and even since then has remained in the background, pulling strings behind the scenes and playing the role of kingmaker. The once razor wit and the sharp intelligence that characterised Davíð Oddsson’s words has become a bitter and rather desperate caricature of what it once was. The former political bruiser who ran the country single-handed now looks a bitter figure at Morgunblaðið, writing increasingly malevolent leaders that bear increasingly little relevance to reality.
You can imagine the man, still with that trademark unruly black hair, slowly stroking a white cat as he ponders the past and the future. Don’t write the man off. Davíð is still alive and kicking. The man who presided over creating the environment for Iceland’s financial disaster to happen still has a die-hard faithful personal following for whom he can do no wrong, and he’s still capable of setting alarm bells ringing if he puts his mind to it by mentioning in passing that he might return to politics one day.
He might even do it just to disjoint the arrogant noses of the young pups of his own party, who may be sick of him but who don’t dare say so, and remind them that he’s still a force to be reckoned, not a man to forget a grudge and a long way from being ready to go quietly.