Emily Carver: Davos deserves to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions

25 May

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

If Davos has passed you by this year, you’re not alone. The annual elite love-in is reportedly to be attended by only one G7 leader – the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz – with numbers significantly down on the last in-person World Economic Forum. In 2019, a quarter of the UK cabinet flew out; this year, COP26 president Alok Sharma is joined by only one other, Investment Minister Gerry Grimstone.

This may be a sign of inflation biting (tickets don’t come cheap), or perhaps pandemic restrictions are still hampering travel plans. Nonetheless, the apparent drop in interest is a welcome sign. Indeed, it’s about time the event collapsed under the burden of its own contradictions.

Like most gatherings of its kind, it’s more an exhibition of hypocrisy and virtue-signalling than a means of affecting change for the benefit of ordinary people. The double standards on display are enough to make even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle cringe. Once again, billionaire business leaders and politicians are spotted jetting into Davos in their droves, before heading into the forum to opine on climate change, equality, and social justice. At least the attention-loving former royals had the sense to give it a miss year – this time, in favour of the Californian polo season

So far, we’ve heard the president of the Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba Group, tell us all about their new development for ‘individual carbon footprint trackers’ to help us all monitor our daily damage to the environment. A quick Google search finds that Alibaba’s total GHG emissions in 2020 were 9.514 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. We’ve heard from the Australian eSafety commissioner about how we need a “recalibration” of freedom of speech – sounds suspiciously like censorship to me – that will favour incumbents over tech start-ups. And we’ve heard from Winnie Byanyima, former head of Oxfam International, about how the “impact of Covid-19 was racist and sexist”. Constructive.

One particular event from this year’s schedule sums up the occasion pretty well: a panel for the World Cup in Qatar. Plenty of platitudes but no mention of Qatar’s questionable human rights record, treatment of sexual minorities, or the deaths of thousands of foreign workers. Elsewhere, the Emir of the State of Qatar used a keynote speech to blame criticism over the country’s hosting of the World Cup on anti-Muslim discrimination.

Now, this would be fine (if a little irritating) if it weren’t for the fact that this is the perfect environment for crony capitalism to flourish, and for global political agendas to be imposed on sovereign nations. Davos is not an event that gives people the chance to ‘speak truth to power’ as it has previously been advertised – unless, of course, you have tens of thousands of dollars spare. It’s a gathering that perpetuates a top-down elitist mentality and the myth that economic welfare is promoted by ‘experts’.

As we know, the global economy is shaped by the dispersed decisions of billions of consumers and tens of millions of businesses. It is not – or should not – be shaped by politicians in cahoots with big corporates. This is what leads to ever more regulation, interventions and barriers to entry that undermine competition, by making it harder for small businesses to operate in their markets. That is not a free market.

Another panel that caught my attention was about ‘Tackling Youth Mistrust’. This involves a very earnest discussion on how those currently in positions of power can win back the trust of young people. It is the yoof who are apparently most concerned by the perceived failings of government and business on ‘climate change, social justice, inequality and conflict’.

This all sounds rather vacuous for starters. But there’s an irony that such an elitist event is pontificating over such a matter, when it is young people who are turning away from capitalism in their droves, a system they perceive as being inherently elitist.

One good news story from Davos at least is the delay in the proposed global minimum corporation tax regime – which the Secretary General of the OECD has said will now be pushed back until 2024. It may even have been kicked into the long. The plans, of course, would not only be a bureaucratic nightmare but would undermine healthy tax competition between countries, and national sovereignty.

But all this shows just how removed these types of events are from the lives of ordinary people. Fundamentally, businesses – big and small – are there to make a profit. To do so, they provide jobs and useful products. It should not, then, be the job of bosses to impose their world views and ill-defined societal goals on the rest of us. It would be refreshing if businesses would remember what their purpose is.

If they have to preach about something, they might do well to espouse the benefits of free market enterprise. After all, it has only liberated a few billions from poverty. But I imagine that isn’t the sort of billions most Davos devotees are interested in.

Sarah Ingham: Under Johnson, the Marie Antoinette of our times, a Labour government is no longer unimaginable

10 Dec

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

For someone who aspired to being world king, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has turned out to be more like France’s Louis XV, who predicted ‘Après moi, le deluge’.

“After me, the flood” has nothing to do with the Government’s obsession with carbon net zero. Let’s hope this fixation reached its zenith at last month’s preening eco-fest, COP26, also known as Davos on the Clyde. Instead, the failures of the reign of King Louis (1710-1774) paved the way for the French Revolution of 1789. Whether the monarch was anticipating or was indifferent to the chaos which would follow him is usually only of academic concern.

Close to the second anniversary of the 2019 election victory which delivered a landslide majority of 80, the Prime Minister’s own seeming indifference to the plight of the people of this country is only rivalled by that of Louis’ granddaughter-in-law, Marie Antoinette, to her subjects. Let them eat cake? Let their children, like 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, die alone. Let their frail elderly be unvisited in care homes. Let their weddings be postponed. Let their churches, temples, synagogues and mosques be closed.

Patterson, Peppa Pig, parties at No 10 and Plan B. During the past few weeks, Johnson has not so much crashed the car into a ditch as sent it over a cliff where it somersaults to the ground before exploding into a fireball. Never mind unforced, his errors appear so wilful, it has to be asked whether he is up to the job of being PM – or indeed even wants it.

“There is no Plan B” – you wish. On Wednesday, more Covid-related restrictions on daily life were unveiled. The timing was reminiscent of the United States’ 1998 bombing of a factory in Sudan, assumed to be Bill Clinton’s very own diversionary tactic to distract from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

The Conservatives are supposed to be the party of business, enterprise and wise stewardship of the economy. The Institute of Economic Affairs suggests the latest Covid measures will cost Britain £4 billion a month. And the Government clearly views the hospitality sector as below the salt, despite contributing almost £60 billion in gross value added to the British economy in 2019. Hammering it in the run-up to Christmas for the second successive year could be the final straw for many weakened businesses. Let them go bust.

There should be no Plan B. Omicron might well be a live vaccine, bestowing natural immunity following a mild cold-like infection. Instead of viewing the variant as a possible blessing, we’re back to more masks, tests, vaccines passports and Working From Home. As ConservativeHome revealed earlier this week, WFH has turned out to be less than optimal for the Foreign Office or for desperate Afghans.

The Government’s response to Covid has been flawed from the get-go: disproportionate, panicked and heedless of collateral damage. It would have been better off consulting Mystic Meg than Professor Neil Ferguson and his ilk. SAGE should have been sacked long ago. Its advice has not only crashed the British economy but failed to prevent 146,000 Covid-related deaths.

The massive structural flaws within the state apparatus which the pandemic has revealed would have been a toxic inheritance for any leader. Post-Brexit Britain can no longer use Brussels as an excuse for mismanagement and burdensome red tape. The country needs a leader with the vision and drive to implement wholesale reform, not least of the Civil Service. We need another Thatcher to solve problems like the NHS: instead we get Johnson who ineffectively throws money at them, raising the tax burden to its highest and most unConservative level since the Second World War. Let them be poorer.

Anyone who has been out on the campaign trail with Johnson will testify to his charisma and the feel-good he conjures up among voters on the rainiest of days. However, his 2019 victory was not down to his celebrity or distinctive cartoon-like silhouette which fascinates small children or to his jokes.

Getting Brexit done was about more than Britain leaving the EU. By opting for Leave in 2016, voters signalled their demand for wholesale change within this country, only to be ignored and insulted by the Remainer political establishment – that includes you, Keir Starmer – who wanted to cling to the status quo. The Red Wall turned blue two years ago because Boris seemed to be on its voters’ side: instead of despising them, he got them.

Those voters are now asking where is Plan A. And whether it includes indulging the eco-loons of Insulate Britain, putting out the welcome mat for illegal migrants, ripping out gas boilers and imposing £1.4 trillion in costs to get the country to net zero. Where are Conservative principles in all this? Governing by focus group is not governing at all.

Blowing up voters’ goodwill, no Jeremy Corbyn to bash, Brexit done … MPs are surely weighing up whether Johnson is an asset or a liability. Next week’s result in North Shropshire should tell them.

The parties at No10 are the ultimate in toxic do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrisy. This is a different order of magnitude from Barnard Castle and the handsy Hancock trysts. Voters are not going to forget or forgive. For many, it’s too close to dancing on graves.

Johnson’s always shaky moral authority is ebbing away. There is already a suspicion that the PM and his wife stretched the rules (or was it the guidance?) last Christmas Day. Should they have stuck two fingers up at voters by going along to the knees-ups at the No10 frat house, it’s game over.

A three-week lockdown has turned into 21 months of state inference in our daily lives, with our hard-fought freedoms trashed by sub-prime officials and ministers. Liberty is the core Conservative value. It would be poetic justice if the Prime Minister were brought down by the statist rules he introduced.

The hubris, self-indulgence and lack of seriousness in Downing Street is typified by a melodrama over a makeover, involving the Electoral Commission in choices about wallpaper.

Thanks to the current chaotic regime, a Labour government is no longer unimaginable. Does Johnson care, or is he actually wanting to spend more time with his new family and with making Netflix documentaries? Après moi, le deluge.

Imran Ahmad Khan: Now is the right time for the UK to evolve a sharper and tighter foreign policy

22 Dec

Imran Ahmad Khan is Member of Parliament for Wakefield and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Foreign Affairs.

The UK has seldom faced such an array of challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak damage to our lives and businesses. Brexit negotiations have uncovered numerous flaws in our institutions, our negotiating skills, and our knowledge of our closest neighbours. The Presidential elections in the US have re-sparked divisive domestic issues. A rising China and a revanchist Russia, both of whom seek to expand their sphere of influence, now present an alternative, illiberal, world order.

Despite these threats, the UK’s recent foreign policy has been marked by missed opportunities and withdrawal. The UK’s weak presence at Davos and the Munich Security Conference in 2020 sent a signal of disinterest. Foreign leaders from countries in Asia, South America and Africa have lamented British disengagement from issues. European leaders have also debated strategic autonomy in Berlin and Paris, while London has remained silent.

Britain has a chance to reverse this deficit. Brexit presents us with the opportunity to deploy new tools of statecraft in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. The recent surge in defence spending – £16.5 billion over four years – will rebuild our pared back military capability. Upcoming commitments in the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific point to new arenas for British influence. Bilateral relationships, although attenuated in some cases, remain strong, and cooperation with the Commonwealth on issues of importance is close.

Now more than ever, a coherent, holistic strategy is required that will unite and enhance our capabilities to advance Britain’s position in the world, her interests, and her values.

What does Britain want?

Her Majesty’s Government’s principle role is to ensure the security and prosperity of her citizens. The British people not only expect this, but recognise the UK’s moral duty to prevent atrocities against oppressed and persecuted peoples, and promote stability across the globe.

These objectives are only achieved through the construction and defence of a world in which Britain is a leading and respected authority. This position does not have to stem from seizing the trident of global power or ruling as a hegemonic power.

Rather, Britain can achieve this through working within a group of like-minded nations that understand our values which set the parameters of the world order. Where there is a hegemon, we ought to influence them. When Britain wants to ensure freedom of navigation in the Bab el-Mandeb, or a free trade agreement with Japan, it helps to be listened to, and for our advise to be carefully weighed upon by military and diplomatic powers.

A critical part of this strategy has relied on maintaining good relations with the US. For decades, we have striven, buoyed by cultural similarity and shared history. The character and extent of American power is changing rapidly and significantly. Our strategy must consider this.

Why must it be Britain?

The defence, maintenance and championing of British security and prosperity internationally is critical. Yet as the current international order comes under strain, questions are raised as to whether Britain should pour its efforts out upon the world stage, and indeed why.

There is a very simple answer – no one else will. The US faces domestic challenges. The special relationship with Washington has weathered worse, but President-elect Biden will likely be distracted with ensuring an economic and institutional recovery. The European Union presents itself as a putative world power, but significant challenges and internal divisions demonstrate some of its many flaws.

Regardless, authoritarianism and illiberalism does not go unopposed. France, in collaboration with Sahelian nations and the UN, leads the charge against terrorism in North Africa. Japan provides development funding across Asia. Australia has stood up to Chinese influence, and has matched their rhetoric with a major increase in defence expenditure.

These actions are predominantly motivated by national interests. It is clear that no one will defend and champion our national interests on our behalf. We must do so ourselves.

What should be done?

Britain cannot enforce the rules of the international order alone. Through acting as a contributing nation for multilateral groups with different geographical and operational remits, Britain can maximise its influence and capacity to achieve geopolitical objectives.

There are circumstances in which Britain would act as the leading authority. The Joint Expeditionary Force that brings together eight northern European nations under British leadership is an excellent example. In other cases, Britain would play the role as a principal lieutenant, supporting and enabling a partner nation to achieve a common objective. Appreciate how British mine countermeasure vessels supported US efforts in the Strait of Hormuz and Bab El Mandeb.

Simply being a member of many organisations would improve British influence, providing us a greater understanding how other nations deploy their capabilities.

Our strength has always been as a convening power; we ought to accentuate it.

Using our leadership in the Joint Expeditionary Force to help France recruit more troops for Task Force Takuba, a pan-European special operations unit in the Sahel, would be one example. In turn, Paris may well help us convince Germany to take a stronger position against Iran, winning us plaudits in Washington.

Relationships like these are the very foundation of diplomacy and international strategy. As we forge our new path outside of the European Union, it is crucial that we fully understand and utilise this concept in order for Britain to position itself as the foremost, flexible, international power.

Our value should come not only from our military or economic strength, nor chiefly from our historic competencies, but rather because the UK has a unique capacity to act as a hub for dozens of overlapping webs of commitment, alliances and amity.

Such a policy would generate increased international political capital and create greater manoeuvring space for British diplomacy. Such space, and such capital, is sorely needed if we are to protect and promote our interests in an increasingly unstable century.

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “the international situation is now more perilous and intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War.” Britain, for all its often reflexive pessimism, has many valuable assets it can use, and important interests it must protect. Now is the right time to evolve a sharper and tighter foreign policy, based on a cool appraisal of the international partnerships and associations which really count. A new strategy which reshapes old alliances, forges new connections, takes advantage of Brexit, and which focuses on key priorities.