Thursday, 9 April 2009

The joke that was the G20 summit or why many potential protesters stayed at home
Sure, protesters marched through the City of London, flanked by police. Loads of police. But, let’s face it, their heart wasn’t really in it. And there weren’t that many of them. Even the Countryside Alliance has fielded more people than hit the City last week.

All the banks were on high alert of course. City workers were told to work from home or dress down, come in earlier than normal (protesters are not used to early starts, you see, they sleep in, lazy people that they are) but really when it came down to it, things were quiet in the City. Eerily quiet most of the time.
And that’s as it should be. Contrary to pet fears, protesters are neither ignorant nor stupid. They have no quarrel with City workers, the number-crunchers that get crunched by the crisis worse than anyone. The people they have a quarrel with were either not coming into work on those days or sitting right at the heart of the G20 summit. So City workers were left to their own devices, largely.
Their bosses were largely not there, so they weren’t hassled.
And the G20 bosses, well, they have security details and traffic police clearing the way so they can’t have noticed much either.

Uneventful, is what the protests were.
Now that’s no bad thing. The people who hit the streets were pacifists, issue-focused and politically aware. Destruction and havoc was not on the agenda so the fact that the protests were uneventful was part of the plan and not, as the BBC seems to suggest, a lucky accident. These people protested our leaders’ inaction in the face of a financial crisis that has been raging and deepening for months now; they protested the indecision and lack of vision that plagues the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan; they protested climate change and the lack of any policy to combat it. They protested real issues affecting us all, in the presence of people who can do something about it. Not the junior associate from HSBC, but the presidents and prime ministers of powerful nations sitting in consultation with each other for the good of their people.

Well some of their people were outside the building trying to get heard but, as usual, they got penned in out of the way until the leaders were out of earshot. Predictably no leader or representative even attempted a sortie even though the protesters were peaceful.

‘We are not all like that Mr President’ said the Sun, juxtaposing a picture of a protesting crowd in the City of London and a photo of the Queen with the Obamas.
What does that mean anyway? We are not like what?
We are not all like a kindly, elderly monarch with a strange taste in clothes? No, I’d think not. But obviously that’s not what it means at all. What it means is we are not all like ‘the great unwashed’, the filthy hippy protestors. We wouldn’t protest, oh no, not us!
And what I want to know is how is that a good thing?
If something is worth protesting against and you do so peacefully and respectfully, how is a protest not proof of care, compassion, humanity and engagement?

Oh yes, the Sun never fails to offend me.
But strongly as I do feel about all this, I must confess that I was not out there on the streets last week.

In the past, I have joined demonstrations even though I knew the government would not listen. Stop the war coalition – I was there, in the cold and rain every time although I knew Blair would take no note. It was important to me to stand up to be counted.
I care. Oh do I care. I wish I didn’t, it may help me sleep at night, caring less. But much as I care, I could not take the G20 summit seriously enough to protest against it. And I could not take the leaders involved seriously enough to try and get their attention.
It was clear even before the summit started that nothing would come of it. No new idea, no commitment, no genuine debate, no genuine falling-out, even, helping to clarify where the global politico-economic fault-lines lie.
We knew, before the debates even started, that we couldn’t even hope for radical disagreement showing us, the voters, that there are genuine, thought-through viable options to choose from.
Nobody had any expectations from the summit. Nobody has any expectations from the leadership.

So I stayed at home alongside millions of people.
Some disagreed with the protesters. The Sun and the man down my local pub feel squeamish at the sight of a protest, those dirty hippies and all that. That’s not me.
The cynics say we are not in Kansas any more and only the protesters can’t see it. That’s not me. Others stayed at home because they have more influence when they are near their phones and laptops than if they are waving placards at passing cars. Well that’s not me either.

I just couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that even if we were to rally the mighty, it will make not a jot of difference as they are largely to blame for the mess we are in anyway. The feeling that the protests had loads of goals but no real aim. A lot of issues but no real focus because it is no longer clear who can solve these problems and how – our leaders lacking both means and will, both ideas and a backbone.

So I stayed at home.
But I am comforted by the fact that not everyone did.
Because when there is this much wrong with the world giving up and going home seems like the sensible option. But it’s not the responsible option.
And still I stayed at home.
Because I knew that everything would come down to cash injections and I just couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm or anger to get out onto the streets to be yelled at by policemen over that. Of course other things were on the agenda. I’m sure Sarkozy suggested radical solutions Obama shrugged off because, generally speaking, the sort of thing the French like gets shot down on the Hill before you can even blink. So we are left with cash injections. And the problem with cash injections is that you and I, long-suffering tax payers, finance those thus salvaging the banks the bosses of whom brought us to where we are today.

And the protesters know that, of course. And I know that.
The difference is I stay at home while they obviously still shout in hope and anticipation even though they are bound to know the paradox – the lack of clear solutions, the total lack of grounds for inter-governmental collaboration and agreement. They are bound to know. Because if they care enough to be angry, if they care enough to be there, they care enough to know.
They know. And they still hope.
They were out on the streets because they still have faith.
And I was at home because I’m all out.

Monday, 6 April 2009

G20 stands for ‘pollution, traffic jams and white noise’

What comes to mind when a large-scale political bigwig summit takes place?
I don’t know about you, but I think of their carbon footprint.
I mean, the only thing that can be taken for granted when it comes to summits like London’s recent hosting of the G20 talks, is that the heads of state and their delegations will cause an inordinate amount of pollution by flying large numbers of people across the world, not to mention motorcades and mountains of wasted paper; they will then cause traffic jams as their security details completely ignore the fact that these summits are held in inhabited areas and other people need to get about too; and they will finally produce endless amounts of white noise – long words that sound right until you string them together, when they tend to mean that the leaders agreed on the significance of the matters on the agenda but could not reach agreement on specifics (read: actual solutions) but we shouldn’t worry our pretty heads as their staffs will sort out all the ‘detail’ (read: actual solutions) at a later date.
By its conclusion, the summit has caused pollution, traffic jams and white noise.

Was this one different?
We’ve definitely had pollution and traffic jams. And white noise.
As for substance, I don’t think anyone really expected much in the first place.

Just take a look at who the G20 actually are: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the US and the EU.
See what I mean?
What are the chances of that lot agreeing on a solution to a problem that affects them in fundamentally different ways, largely because of each other?

Of course it would be lovely if they all agreed on a set of real solutions. The world would suddenly go cinemascope and we would all live happily ever after.
But the hope that the G20 would unveil a great new initiative had died a death before the leaders even started arriving in London. Or, if truth be told, no one ever expected much more than pollution, traffic jams and white noise.

So what did we get?
A new name for the Financial Stability Forum – now called the Financial Stability Board. More regulation for all financial institutions, instruments and markets. That’s good, of course. But also expected. And as the ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ are, predictably, left to be worked out at a later stage, it all boils down to white noise.
Don’t hold your breath while waiting for change to happen, everybody.

Tough new rules for hedge funds, pay and bonuses and new accounting standards were promised and a ‘shared approach’ was announced. You guessed it. Detail and implementation to be fleshed out at some other point by less important people.

Meanwhile the leaders wagged a finger at tax havens that don’t share information readily. That will teach them.

Oh and more money will be poured into the IMF – three times as much money coming to approximately $750bn.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Yeah. We (the Long-Suffering Tax-Payers' Club) just paid for a summit that simply repeated what we already knew. Couldn’t we have just skipped the party, pollution, traffic jams and white noise and spent the money on cash injections directly?

I can see you are yawning already but there’s a little more I’m afraid. A little more white noise.
The G20 supports increased lending for developing nations, you’ll be pleased to hear – more debt that our erstwhile leaders can then act surprised at in a few years’ time. Trade assistance, export credit, investment agencies all meet with G20 approval. Blah blah on how the rich will help the poor. Meanwhile the rich are floundering just as badly if not worse than the poor and nobody can help them. Not even each other. And how they will help the poor when they can’t help themselves is anybody’s guess.

So the white noise continues. Pledges to resist protectionism and protect free trade. Pledges to notify the WTO if any children don’t play nice. White noise promising more white noise. Oh and a request that the WTO produce their own white noise in the form of regular reports. Now that’s reassuring.

And there is no new fiscal stimulus. There is but there isn’t. Trust Gordon Brown to come up with that one.

And although all leaders were triumphant at the end of the summit, I have to wonder whether things would have been better had they stayed at home. Since they said nothing new, they failed to really address let alone solve anything, they did not alleviate anything or punish anyone all we got was pollution, traffic jams and white noise.
So they should have stayed at home. They came all this way to bore, anger and disappoint us. Well they could have done that from their respective capitals and they would have, at least spared, the environment.