Image: Warwick Economics Summit

President Jóhannesson on revisiting Warwick – WES 2019

Of the list of notable Warwick Alumni, Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, the current President of Iceland, is close to the top. Having graduated from Warwick in 1990 with a BA in History and Politics, and obtaining a PhD from Oxford, President Jóhannesson returned to his native Iceland to become a historian at the University of Iceland, specialising in modern Icelandic History. Deciding at the age of 48 that he wanted to instead pursue a career in politics, he ran for the presidency and on the 1st August 2016, was sworn in as Iceland’s 6th President. Given that President Jóhannesson represents a shining example of what Warwick graduates can achieve, everyone in attendance at the first day of WES 2019 was eager to hear the President regail his experiences at the university we all know so well.

[The President] was advocating a curiosity for observing history in the making and appreciating what is going on around you

“Its easier to regret what you haven’t done than what you have, so seize the moment and witness history in the making”, noted the President in response to a question about what advice he would give to current Warwick students. What the President was referring to here was his unfortunate situation during the second year of his degree in 1989. Instead of taking a trip to Berlin which would have resulted in witnessing first-hand the fall of the Berlin wall, he instead had decided to stay at Warwick to finish one of his essays. Whilst he may not have been encouraging students to miss an essay deadline in favour of going on holiday to their friend’s ski lodge in the alps, he was advocating a curiosity for observing history in the making and appreciating what is going on around you.

This lesson of observation and curiosity was not the only lesson President Jóhannesson took away from 1989. More prominently, the events of 1989 demonstrated to him the desire for freedom, democracy and human rights that had begun to dominate so many societies. But where are we now? Has society achieved all that was promised to it with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989? It was at this point in his talk that President Jóhannesson decided to do the 10-year challenge, with Iceland.

If we change this definition [of nationalism] to include openness and inclusivity, we can maintain national identity in an open-minded and inclusive society.”

Back in 2009, Iceland was in a poor state. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) had taken its toll on the economy in a harsh way, so much so that it is very common to find Iceland at the top of any ‘Countries hit hardest by the GFC’ list. Fast forward 10 years or so, Iceland’s economy has recovered and they even managed to beat England in the Euros, a fact that President Jóhannesson was not going to let the audience forget. Even more so, Iceland is now an example of how we can embrace nationalism and patriotism at the same time as encouraging globalisation.

In a time when Trump is dividing America and Brexit is turning neighbour against neighbour, Iceland is setting the standard for how a country can embrace others without losing its national identity. “Being an Icelander doesn’t mean that you speak the language, or that you can trace your heritage back to famous Icelandic heroes. The world is changing and we need to change with it” noted the President, obviously very proud of the country he represents. “The answer lies in the definition of what it means to be nationalistic. If we change this definition to include openness and inclusivity, we can maintain national identity in an open-minded and inclusive society.” Iceland is not the only country who has this approach to nationalism and globalisation. The President was quick to praise Canada and their president Justin Trudeau for adopting a similar philosophy.

When posed with a question about what would come after populism and nationalism as the next big ‘political trend’, the President was more reserved in his answer, “As a Historian, I don’t like to predict the future, nor can I”. He would hope that other countries can learn from the ‘Nordic model’, an approach to economic and social policy that has resulted in many Scandinavian countries topping the list of world’s happiest countries year in, year out. “The Nordic model emphasises personal freedom, freedom of expression, religion and love. At the same time, you have a safety net provided by the government. If your child is in need, you don’t need to worry as the government will help. I hope that we can see this reflected in other societies too.”


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