“I have very little respect for laws” - interview with Pirate Party founder Birgitta Jónsdóttir
The founder of the Icelandic Pirates on taking the party to the brink of power, and why she quit
Image credit: Timothee Lambrecq
Birgitta Jónsdóttir had only just been elected in Iceland when she made her first visit to the Scottish Parliament.
It was 2009 and, sitting in the Garden Lobby almost ten years on, she says the first thing that struck her upon her arrival was the contrast between how the parliaments in the two countries operate. “The way you organise the speaker of the house, that’s quite unique, and it’s really good,” she says.
“It’s all these little things that add up that make this building, and its accessibility and modernisation. I remember when I came first, I heard that there was a day-care centre for the staff and the dignitaries. I mean, how awesome is that? It’s really encouraging for young people to get engaged and so forth. If you look at other parliaments, it’s really messed up, it’s impossible for independent parents to join that.”
Jónsdóttir was representing the Citizens’ Movement back then, a party aimed at promoting radical systemic change in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The visit was part of a tour, with Jónsdóttir following her trip to Scotland with fact-finding visits to other parliaments around the world, even if she says her insistence on meeting with Tibetan activists did little to impress the Chinese. “Yeah, I made the Chinese authorities pretty upset with me,” she laughs. “First the Americans, then Chinese... the more the merrier!”
More activist than the traditional model of a politician, much of Jónsdóttir’s career has been a mix of writing poetry and campaigning for political reform, taking her from working with WikiLeaks on the Afghan War Logs to a seat in the Icelandic Parliament.
In 2011, she was dragged into a lengthy legal battle with the US after the country’s Department of Justice issued a subpoena to Twitter for her personal information, before later joining Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg and other activists in a separate case, based on suing the United States’ government to stop the implementation of the National Defense Authorization Act over concerns the powers it granted security forces represented a serious restriction on liberty. She says she is being recorded on a regular basis.
But Jónsdóttir is probably best known for her role in founding the Icelandic Pirate Party, a movement based on promoting civil rights, transparency and direct democracy.
Founded in 2012, the party rose rapidly in the polls, drawing attention worldwide and taking its vote share from just over five per cent in the 2013 election to become a front runner for the next vote, three years later. Momentum had been growing, but the big breakthrough came in April 2016 with the resignation of Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, amid mounting public outrage over revelations from the Panama Papers, which showed his family had sheltered money offshore.
The financial crisis and its aftermath had thrown Iceland into a deep, painful depression, forcing it to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, and by the time the Panama Papers were published the economy had only just started showing signs of recovery. The papers showed the prime minister had owned an offshore investment company with multimillion pound claims on Iceland’s collapsed banks, and that his wife still did.
Just the day before the story broke, Gunnlaugsson had been doing broadcast interviews, emphasising the need for everyone to pay tax and contribute fairly to society. The hypocrisy stung.
As Jónsdóttir told the Guardian at the time: “People just feel humiliated and very, very angry. After what happened to this country in 2008 we needed honesty, transparency and integrity from our leaders. None of these things have been evident in this whole story.”
By this point, polls were putting the pirates at between 35 per cent and 42 per cent, and most commentators were tipping Jónsdóttir as the next prime minister. Except Jónsdóttir, that is. Within a year, she quit.
“A lot of people ask me, why did you decide to leave? I left at my peak, so to speak. They ask, why don’t you come back? And the idea was just… urghhh. I just walked past the parliament and I saw my old colleagues there yesterday – I was just looking at them and I just felt so much pity for them, because there’s no order.
“Let’s say you want to prepare for something, you are preparing for a bill that you are going to be debating. But you can’t prepare because you’re going to see it at midnight, and it will be on the agenda for the next day. It’s such a big F U to the quality of this work that I took very seriously. I felt so incredibly responsible for the trust that was given to me. All these people trusted me, of all people, to look after their interests. How incredibly privileged. But I felt very disturbed by how little I could actually earn their trust because I could not do my work properly.
“A lot of flawed legislation has come through so many different times. Just two days ago, laws were being introduced at noon, bad laws, with errors, and they were passed the same day. How is this possible? It goes against all the safeguards that are supposed to be in place for any legislation.”
Jónsdóttir says she has been an activist for as long as she can remember. And, for someone that prefers the term ‘poetician’ to politician, it doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine the reality of parliamentary politics must have come as a shock to someone who had previously based her campaign work on changing the system from the outside. How did the experience of parliament change her?
“I have very little respect for laws,” she says, smiling. “I’ve always been a bit of a punk, so people don’t really need to go in there unless they’re willing to swallow a lot of crap. I think, personally, that power is very sneaky and it corrupts very quickly. It’s a very, very dangerous thing to play with. You have to be really together, you have to be whole. Parliament is full of broken people and alcoholics and all kinds of stuff. Also, sociopaths.
“I mean, of course there’s lots of brilliant people in there but they often are not respected or heard because they are not out there. Very, very thorough, very nice people. I respect people from all parties, I always find somebody that I could talk with and share ideas with and so forth. I think it’s important in politics that people can talk together across the house, even if it’s difficult to talk with fascists, I don’t think I could do that.
“So, one of the perks of being inside, and there are not many, was that as an activist, I didn’t have the phonebook of the parliament, so I couldn’t corner ministers in the cafeteria. I got access to people and understand how it really works. It’s very valuable knowledge that I want to share with others that want to change things. If we have weak, powerless parliaments, we have to recognise that’s not democracy.”
And it’s here that Jónsdóttir expresses admiration for the way Holyrood operates. In fact, Scottish politics holds a particular attraction to her following the independence referendum and the way it brought whole swathes of the population, previously disengaged, into the centre of debate. She is obviously enthusiastic about the way the vote stimulated discussion over the shape of the country Scots want to live in, and the opportunities to bring democratic decision-making closer to the people.
The referendum saw a reignition of political engagement in Scotland. Turnout was huge. Under-18s could take part. From attempts to get the so-called ‘missing millions’ on to the electoral register to Ruth Davidson talking about hearing strangers debate the nuances of the Barnett formula at 3am outside bus stops, the campaign saw a population energised, politically, regardless of where they stood on the future of the country.
Yet the years since have seen pro-union parties and campaigners paint the campaign as divisive; as a negative process that pitted friends and work colleagues against each other, dividing families and communities along the binary choices of Yes and No.
Some will reject that picture as unrecognisable, or argue any political discussion in a democracy will involve opinions diverging, but regardless of the lens through which we look back on the 2014 vote now, surely it can provide us with lessons? How can Scotland maintain political engagement while also fostering harmony in society?
This is something Jónsdóttir is familiar with. “Democracy never becomes anything more or less than what you put into it,” she says. “I think that the people here are more aware of that than many other nations because you’ve quite a unique history in your democratic experimentations, and it’s important to cherish it and build on it, especially right now as we are heading into times of greater and greater extremes of opinion.
“I always tell people when they’re trying to do something that they need everyone to agree on, then they have to begin on the stuff that everybody could potentially agree on. You don’t start with the stuff that divides the most but try to figure out what unifies the most, and then you go into the harder deliberations, instead of trying to take head on the stuff that’s really sensitive to people.”
She adds: “I think it’s important for the people in Scotland that, either way, those that lost during the last campaign don’t feel like losers, and, if you become independent, those that didn’t vote for that don’t feel like they’re losers. Because that’s a ticket for populists, in the most negative aspect of a populist, to feed into that division because they get votes for it. Scoundrels. These are the most despicable form of people, that feed on the flames of fear. As humanity, we need to be unified about the things we are about to endure. We cannot look the other way anymore about climate change, even if it doesn’t impact one nation more one day, we never know what is going to hit next. It’s like playing poker with the devil. And we need to practise first on our home turf. Even in families there are arguments about the stuff that divides them, but maybe they should sit down and have a discussion about the stuff they agree on. Because people, when they have access to information, when they have access to good tools to work with, they tend to be pretty smart. They often tend to be smarter than the people that think they are smart.”
She adds: “People often feel that democracy is about voting, but it’s not. It’s not democracy. Particularly not if you can’t hold the people that have been elected accountable. So they promise to do something and they don’t keep up to it and in any other job if you promise to deliver something and they don’t deliver it, you don’t have to wait four years until you can get rid of the person. Accountability is really lacking, but that doesn’t mean that people in their day-to-day lives, in their own communities, can’t put effort into democracy the way they want to have it.”
She adds: “There’s a window for change, there’s always a very tiny one, but it’s there and it’s wide open. For example, after the crash in Iceland when we had the first left wing government, because they’d never been in power, they decided they wanted to do everything, and that meant they hardly got anything done. Maybe if they had asked the people more about how to prioritise it would have been easier for them. And if they would have done the fundamental changes first, that is difficult to undo – because it’s always like a right-wing government after a left government.”
But, like Scotland, Iceland seems to have avoided the growth of far right groups or movements that have sprung up in other parts of the world. Why is that? Is there a more mainstream route to channel anger at politicians in Scotland or Iceland than elsewhere?
Jónsdóttir describes a sense of defiance growing among ordinary people in Iceland post-2008, but instead of moving to the right, they looked to the pirates for help.
“Of course, people were very pissed off in Iceland because of what happened, and people are still suffering, even if there’s attempts to whitewash history right now. There were some parties trying to establish themselves on the fascist ticket [in the wake of the financial crisis]. We made mistakes, which always happens, particularly when you’re new, you’re not refined with your way, like spin doctors and stuff like that which you shouldn’t have – no respectable person in politics should have a spin doctor, seriously. I hereby declare that all spin doctors should be made unemployed.
“So people decided to rebel in the polls by saying they were pirates. That basically meant, if you, the other parties, are not going to get your act together, I’ll be a pirate. And so it was not a political statement, it was just a statement. It was saying, ‘I am fed up and I want changes’, instead of joining the populists. Every time we’d make a mistake we’d come out and say, ‘I’m sorry, I made a mistake, I’m really sorry, I don’t know everything’. Just say things as they are, we’re not perfect. People liked that. They like that we were honest, we weren’t trying to hide anything that was not perfect. And we just talked like normal people, we weren’t pretending to be anything other than what we were.
“That’s why we went so high in the polls, which was our biggest curse. It’s the worst, it’s just really bad to grow too fast. Anybody who remembers being a teenager, with all the growing pains, that’s what happened to us. We were like a teenager going through a very, very quick growth and we weren’t prepared. It meant a lot of people within the party started to get very worried about public opinion, that we might lose their support. But it’s not real. If people do not like who we are, in the end, we don’t want them to vote for us, because then they’ll get very upset if they vote for us and we carry on being ourselves. I think this is an important lesson. Polls are not real. They have never been real. They don’t mean anything. We’ve seen that in the last years. I told everyone, we’re not going to get all these votes. There is no way we’re going to get all these votes. It’s just not going to happen. Yet the entire mainstream media in the world came to us and wrote the story about pirates taking over Iceland, and it didn’t matter what I said. They were writing all this bullshit, ‘the next prime minister of Iceland could be…’, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be a prime minister, stop this!’ So I witnessed the distortion.”
But while the pirates never did manage to storm parliament – the party’s highest vote share was 14 per cent in 2016 – it has at least provided a model for others to follow. And for Jónsdóttir, the need for new models of democracy is greater than ever before.
She tells Holyrood: “It just seems that the authoritarian governments or dictatorships are getting worse. Countries that you traditionally believe were the cradle of democracy are really wobbling, and really going in very dangerous directions, and if people do not take matters into their own hands with viable, new alternatives and solutions, we will go into dark days. I sometimes abuse myself by reading comments, various comments that are quite racist, xenophobic, you know, hatred against gays, hatred against trans, hatred against women, hatred against just about everything that’s not white men or white women, and it’s so shocking to read this from people that you would actually attribute intelligence to. It’s making it into mainstream norms, this type of behaviour and views. How can it be a norm that people agree on human rights violations and inequality, how can that be the norm in the 21st century? What the fuck?”
This has been an intense hour or so on the financial, environmental and societal challenges facing Planet Earth, with Jónsdóttir repeatedly tapping into a growing sense of anxiety, of impending external risks and growing extremism, probably felt by citizens of many different countries, while also critiquing a world which appears unable to cope. It’s not cheery stuff. But what about the case for optimism? Where is the space for hope?
For Jónsdóttir, hope stems from an unexpected place. “I’ve actually spent about a year on a burnout and I just discovered what it was,” she said. “I’m a classic Icelander, I’m a total workaholic, just work, work, work. But when I left parliament, I went into this deep burnout. I was just so exhausted and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, because I always bounce very quickly out of stuff. I realised it was because I felt no hope. I felt it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s completely pointless. I stayed in this space for a very long time and it was quite horrible and now I understand how a lot of people feel. Then when I started to come back and you realise the thing that’s important is the stuff that gets you up in the morning, the stuff you feel passionate about. It could be tiny things, like fixing the holes in your street. For example, a very simple exercise if you don’t like the potholes in your street is to plant flowers there, so everyone can see there are so many potholes with these amazing flowers, little defiant things. You can spend so much time criticising what’s wrong.
“People are thinking about ways to improve their society. That gives me hope, because there’s always more and more of them. We’re not less. We’re not disengaged. We are ready. I feel that and if and when we start to connect these dots, it’s all there, and it’s all ready. We just need awareness about it and to help people find it and help people work together on the stuff that makes them want to get up in the morning and that gives me hope… If you don’t have that hope and belief that whatever you’re doing makes a difference, then you just [become] a cog in a machine. You’re just another brick in the wall. Now, I have seen how little things need to be done to really shift things. And it’s just the matter of finding the people with the energy. You never know where these seeds are going to come up. They might not come in the season you expect, but they survive anything.”
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