Friday, 10 October 2008

The C.O.D. wars

Austin Mitchell, the maverick MP for Grimsby (Mitchell is a New Zealander by birth and a political scientist by training) always has a good line and has described Britain's spat with Iceland as the new cod (cash on delivery) wars.

Mitchell was on the radio in his role as Icelandic apologist: he is chair of the Britain-Iceland Parliamentary Committee, a body of which I had hitherto been unaware. His line was that Britain (and Gordon Brown in particular) was bullying a small, benighted country; it wouldn't have happened if it was an African country, etc. etc.

The interviewer suggested that Brown was trying to get some credit with the electorate by playing on anti-foreigner feeling, although most people's knowledge of Iceland probably comes down to the following: all-night partying in Reykjavik; bathe among the ice in a steaming lake (not too pleasant in my experience); see the havoc of recent volanic eruptions and watch the geysers blow; beautiful blondes.

The Icelandic prime minister was not very happy that Britain had moved to seize some of his country's assets by using anti-terrorist legislation, but Iceland is a member of the OECD and it should live up to its obligations. It has now become close to being a failed state, but it is hardly a kleptocracy - or perhaps it is.

A Treasury team has now been dispatched to Iceland which is better than sending a gunboat. Relations between the two countries have had many periods of difficulty, but having shown that we can act tough, now is the time to talk. However, Iceland is a fiercely patriotic that country defends its interests tenaciously, as it has to, so don't expect too much too soon.

Indeed, if the Treasury team come back with a single krona, they will have done well, not that the Icelandic currency is worth very much any more. However, they can avail themselves of the large duty free opticians that will greet them at Reykjavik airport.

Richard Rose and Guy Peters were truly prescient many years ago when they wrote a book called Can Government Go Bankrupt? Interestingly, the last example (leaving aside kleptocracies) was another North Atlantic country, Newfoundland, in the 1930s depression. The end result was that it was absorbed in Canada. Iceland would certainly not surrender its independence.

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