With democracy in varying degrees of turbulence globally, and with the opportunity for citizens to make their mark, the next few blogs will be about gifts citizens might consider giving themselves – just in time for Christmas.
Throughout 2008, Iceland suffered some of the worst effects of the global economic meltdown. Its private banks went into default, entered bankruptcy, leading to the largest collapse of a nation’s economy, relative to its size, in the history of the world. The coalition government at the time opted to bail out the banks by requiring each citizen of Iceland to pay 100 Euros a month for 15 years. Icelandic citizens, showing a remarkable ability to come together, forced the government to hold a national referendum on the bailout and 98% voted to reject it.
Citizens had rightly determined that the entire thing was a governance failure as well as an economic one. There was a lot of cronyism at the national level and the banking industry had overt influence. How would citizens handle it now that they had spoken so clearly in the referendum? Well, that’s just it; the way they reacted represented one of the most daring attempts to recapture their country in modern times.
They knew that if they remained isolated from one another that all efforts would fail, and so they launched the Anthill – a network of grassroots organizations charged with finding a new vision for the country. A national assembly was established, consisting of 1500 citizens selected by their peers, who were to “energize the wisdom of the population” and develop a manifesto. Recognizing that citizens weren’t about to relax their momentum, the governing parliament installed a Constitutional Assembly, delegating a group of citizens with the “intensely legalistic task” of working in a constitutional council to write an entirely new framework. It was a remarkable development, mostly ignored by the rest of the world.
Every week the Council gathered in meetings televised to the entire country and accessible on the Internet. Every Icelander was invited to send in comments. Draft clauses were posted on the Council’s website. The public availed themselves of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to register their input.
What was the result of all this intense effort? In October, the country held a referendum that asked voters six questions about the completed draft. Two-thirds of the population voted to accept the recommendations. The proposed new Constitution is now back in the hands of the Parliament, awaiting ratification or denial.
What the small nation of Iceland undertook is nothing short of staggering. They didn’t attempt to overthrow their government, but they did combine to stand against its decision to bail out the banks. The rest flowed from that one courageous moment. That one instance of daring, where citizens backed one another in a matter of importance, wasn’t taken lightly. Nor was it entertained at a time of relative peace. The nation, as with many of their counterparts around the world, was suffering through months of deep turbulence where its entire economy was at stake. Yet citizens were so serious about it that the political order understood that the nation was shifting under its feet. Slowly at first, the government eventually permitted more movement for citizen’s groups within the power structure.
Altering a constitution is a deeply serious thing, for such a power arrangement is the bedrock of any country’s identity. For a government to let the general population in on the exercise of writing a new such document is profound. But what was truly remarkable is that the citizens themselves believed they could handle it. Having asked and pushed for change, they were willing to trust one another in the delivery of a new model for how to run their nation. The politicians, seeing such willingness to take responsibility among the citizens, understood well enough that if citizens themselves were permitted to design the change that they then would back the new document.
It is difficult to imagine Canada undertaking such a national exercise in transformational change. Canadians have almost always preferred to press for change without cooperating in large enough numbers to bring it about. But in our communities there are movements emerging that reveal some at least are willing to take things to the next level. They are neither desirous of overthrowing their civic leaders or to pretend that they have all the solutions to our present challenges. Yet – and this is the key element – they comprehend that pressing for change means that they must do so as a citizenry and not merely as a bunch of disassociated individuals.
Citizenship requires serious thinkers, but it also means that such people aren’t mere outliers, tossing their grenades whenever the moment suits them. Those who are truly serious about transformation, change or reform comprehend that all serious daring starts from within the individual before it spills over into the group. One of the greatest gifts we can offer our fellow citizens is our willingness to dare – for ourselves, our communities, our country, for them.
Tolstoy used the say that everyone thinks about changing the world but never about changing themselves. True citizens understand that distinction and take the first step towards transformation by daring acts of change. It is one of the greatest gifts we can grant one another. But remember, the manner of giving means more than the gift itself, and for each of us to step out and take daring moves in our love for democracy is to bestow upon citizenship its highest honour because we were willing to risk ourselves for it.