It is the country with the sixth highest GDP per capita in the world; where people buy the most books; where life expectancy for men is the highest in the world, and not far behind for women; it's the only country in NATO with no armed forces (they were banned 700 years ago); the highest ratio of mobile telephones to population; the fastest-expanding banking system in the world; rocketing export business; crystal-pure air; hot water delivered to all Icelandic households straight from the earth's volcanic bowels; and so on and so forth.
But none of this happiness would be possible without the hardy self-confidence that defines individual Icelanders, which in turn derives from a society that is culturally geared - as its overwhelming priority - to bring up happy, healthy children, by however many fathers and mothers. A lot of it comes from their Viking ancestors, whose males were rampant looters and rapists, but had the moral consistency at least not to be jealous of the dalliances of their wives - tough women who kept their families fed in the semi-tundra harshness of this north Atlantic island while their husbands forayed, for years at a time, far and wide. . .
Icelanders know how to identify the best and incorporate it into their society. I talked about this to the Icelandic prime minister, Geir Haarde, whom I met at an official event at a steamy public swimming bath, a popular meeting place for Icelanders, like pubs for the British. Easygoing as everybody else I met, and without anything dimly resembling a bodyguard anywhere near him (there is almost no crime in Iceland), he agreed on the spot to sit down and do a quick interview.
'I believe we have blended the best of Europe and the United States here, the Nordic welfare system with the American entrepreneurial spirit,' he said, pointing out that Iceland, unlike the other Nordic countries, had exceptionally low personal and corporate tax rates. . . Which is not to say that Iceland has been immune to the financial panic affecting the rest of the world right now. Icelandic banks being, in the US manner, aggressive and optimistic global players, there are worries they may have over-extended themselves. The rise in food and oil prices is generating the same sort of headlines in Iceland's papers as we are seeing elsewhere. Yet there is no suggestion that the economic system itself is under threat. Icelanders will continue to receive not just free, top-class education but free, top-class healthcare, private medicine being limited in Iceland chiefly to luxury procedures, such as cosmetic surgery.
Dagur Eggertsson, until recently the mayor of Reykjavik and every inch a future prime minister of Iceland, made the point to me that what has happened in Iceland has defied economic logic. 'In the Eighties and Nineties right wingers in the US and UK were saying that the Scandinavian system was unworkable, that high state investment in public services would kill business,' said Dagur, a boyish, super-bright 35-year-old who, like most Icelanders, is a furiously hard-working multi-tasker - as well as a politician, he is a doctor. 'Yet here we are, in 2008,' he continues, 'and you look at the hard economic statistics and you see that these last 12 years we and the Scandinavian countries have been roaring ahead. Someone called it bumblebee economics: scientifically, aerodynamically, you cannot figure out how it flies, but it does, and very nicely, too'