Facing the Lamb chop: Odds that the UK coalition (Lib-Con, Con-Dem, Con-Lib … whatever you call it, the point is made) will not go the distance got a little shorter this week, with threats by Lib-Dem senior adviser Norman Lamb to resign over the handling of the government’s politically disastrous NHS reform plan.

The core of the plan — which is now in limbo, months after it was announced — was to transfer management of most of the system to GP trusts (who could then use the money to contract private providers for services). Lamb wants the 2013 deadline for this change to be eased off, and for some of the old system of “primary care trusts” to be retained.

Lamb is more than an adviser; he’s also an MP, and a party whip. His threat to resign was the usual waffling half-in-half-out performance that made it a Lib-Dem special; nevertheless, it’s a measure of how close to breaking point the Lib-Dems are. This is, after all, a left-liberal party, with a tight elite of neoliberals (OK, social market liberals) at the top, taking the rank-and-file for a ride.

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By and large, they will stick together, but the prospect of an internal overthrow is not impossible. In December, 21 of the 58 Lib-Dems voted against the raising of tuition fees; the possibility of being the party that helped kill the NHS may finally prompt them to throw out the leadership and leave government, as a necessary measure to avoid a full split. Tonight, the leader of the Liverpool Lib-Dems has had leaked a letter (OK, email) he sent to Nick Clegg demanding that the party quit the coalition now, to avoid “disappearing into the annals of history”.

Should they do that, they would be cut to ribbons in the ensuing election; but they will also be cut to ribbons should they go the full term. At some point, the sheer imperative of keeping the party (which was, pretty recently, two parties) together may become uppermost.

“Our aluminium is the best aluminium/all other countries’ aluminium/is of inferior quality …” Frelsi! Iceland, the country that went from fishing and aluminium to global banking powerhouse, and then back to fishing and aluminium again, has rejected yet another demand by the UK and Dutch governments that the country repay the $A5 billion or so that was paid out to savers in the failed “Icesave” accounts at the height of the 2000s boom.

“Icesave” offered UK and Dutch savers a phenomenal rate of interest through their own banks, backed by, well, by fish and aluminium, or Iceland’s GDP as it is otherwise known. What could possibly go wrong? For investors, after the whole thing collapsed, it was the country’s stubborn refusal to liquidate social assets to pay for the bankers’ mistakes. The centre-right government fell, and a left-green outfit took over, honouring the public mood not to pay.

Now, a referendum has decisively endorsed that position, with a 58% no-vote on a payout. However, there it gets complicated. The centre-right, having got the country into this mess, is now resurgent in the polls again — indeed the editor of the country’s main paper Morgunbladid, which has been campaigning for a “no” vote, is the ex-prime minister who took the country down the neoliberal road. However, even if they get back into power, it’s likely their scope of action will be circumscribed.

Icelanders don’t seem to want another fantasy economy — they want to build towards a new one based on a more realistic assessment of their new assets — tourism, renewable energy — with maybe a little fish and aluminium in the mix. The referendum is unlikely to be the end of the matter. The UK government is now threatening to take the country to international court. How it will end, cod knows.

Burqa boiling. France’s ban on the burqa and niqab, which went into force today, has already had a predictable effect — two women arrested for the clothes they wear, and the promise by campaigners to stage civil disobedience “burqa wearings” in public places. A French property developer Rachid Nekkaz has put up €2 million to back legal challenges by those arrested under the law.

Outside of France, the law has little support, even from the Islamophobic right, who usually never pass up a chance to take a crack. Yet inside France it has the support of all major parties. For Nicolas Sarkozy it became a giant game of chicken — or coq I guess — using the insistence on a ban in order to affirm “republican” values, and distract the public from his abject failure to reform the economy in any meaningful way.

Yet it is doubtful that the burqa ban was doing much for him. He was hoping that the opposition parties would oppose the ban, giving him a culture war. They let it go through, which is a pretty awful betrayal of civil liberties, but probably smart politics. Sarkozy now owns the bill, at which point it is an immediate problem. Whatever people think in the abstract, the sight of police hauling off women — possibly older, quite mild-mannered ones — for something they wear, tends to offend the most basic and universal social values.

Furthermore, the law will have two effects: it will prompt some women to don the niqab in solidarity, thus turning an utterly minor social practice into one that becomes a central focus of the culture; and it will force some niqab wearers who genuinely believe in the prescriptions associated with it to stay indoors. Ultimately, in enforcing the ban, the police will need training in how to handle such incidents. It is obvious who they should get it from — could several members of Iran’s decency squad not be seconded to assist in the training?

The prescriptions may differ, but the principle is the same — that a culture’s survival depends on telling women what they can wear.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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