When Iceland was granted independence from Denmark, the new sovereign country simply accepted the Danish Constitution, with minimal titular adjustments (such as President for King). This appears to have sufficed for the small ethnically homogeneous island country – 350,000 population – until now, as the country slowly adjusts to its black hole economic collapse two years ago. Of all non-failing countries, Iceland’s collapse was the worst, its banks proving to be the most over-extended and corrupt, and its government the least able to deal with the ensuing crisis.
Iceland has always been notable for its Viking independence and willingness to experiment with new institutions. It is home to the world’s first parliament and it is now on the path to writing a new constitution based on the notion of the popular will.
The constitutional assembly will comprise between 25 and 31 delegates, the final number to be determined by a gender and equality ratio. Any Icelandic citizen is eligible to stand for election, with the exception of the president, the lawmakers, and members of the committee appointed to organize the assembly. The election will take the form of direct personal voting by all eligible citizens of Iceland.
The election race is already under way, with 523 candidates competing for membership of the constitutional assembly. University professors, truck drivers, lawyers, journalists, and computer specialists are numbered among a diverse range of candidates. Those elected will receive a salary equal to that of Iceland’s lawmakers for the duration of the assembly. Icelandic employers are legally obliged to grant leave to any employee elected to the assembly.
The assembly will draft a proposed new constitution during 2011, based in part on consideration of materials provided earlier in 2010 by 1,000 randomly-chosen Icelanders – between 18 and 89 years of age – who offered their views of what the constitution should contain.
Here is a project worthy of close attention. It differs markedly from the concept advanced by most constitutional scholars, where an intellectual elite (they fondly imagine just like themselves) is chosen to write a draft constitution. In the case of the United States, each of the confederate states sent its brightest and best educated to Philadelphia, with the likes of James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, steeped in the ideas of the Enlightenment, well-versed in the wisdom of John Locke, William Blackstone, David Hume and Adam Smith, and knowledgeable about the weaknesses of all the earlier republics that had failed; the sad legacies of Athenian democracy and of republican Rome.
Now it may come to pass that the Icelandic assembly will embrace such accumulated wisdom. But that is not in the usual nature of the popular will. It will be fascinating to see whether the common man can write a constitution superior to that crafted by the elitist assembly that gathered in Philadelphia.
The common Icelandic man should not prematurely be written off. After all the United States Constitution, just like those of Athens and Rome before it, is now tattered and torn, distorted beyond the possible imagination of any great thinker who participated in that historic Philadelphia experiment. Of one thing we can be certain. The Icelandic democracy will obtain a constitution that it truly deserves.