The MT diary: Howard Davies

Davos days ... the A-list celebs, the photo-op entrepreneurs, the Bollywood floorshow.

by Howard Davies, the director of the London School of Economics
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Michael Douglas was there, and Mohammed Ali. Gilberto Gil put in an appearance, as did Bono. Brad Pitt looked in, with Angelina Jolie. You've guessed it: we're talking the annual snowfest of the world's business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

New Labour are now well on the Davos case, and all over the programme. No Tony Blair this year, though.

He was the future once, as David Cameron memorably remarked, but now it's Gordon Brown whom Bono wants to meet. Wherever two or three A-list celebs were gathered together, there was our Chancellor, in his red tie.

He also graced the British lunch, where Digby Jones pulled together some real business folk and spoke persuasively before scuttling off to see someone more important, like Jean-Claude Trichet of the ECB, Rodrigo Rato of the IMF or Angela Merkel - or maybe even Angelina.

Alan Johnson was left to do the post-lunch cabaret. Digby wondered if he felt upstaged. 'No,' he said, 'I asked Gordon to be my warm-up man.' Was that joke cleared with the Treasury, I wonder, as all ministerial pronouncements have to be these days? I doubt it.

Apart from the inevitable Digby, and current CBI president John Sunderland, which British business leaders feature on the Davos radar? John Browne and John Bond would do, but they were otherwise engaged. Martin Sorrell is omnipresent, as is Sir Richard Branson, as long as there are enough cameras in attendance. Niall FitzGerald, now of Reuters, is clearly listened to on a wide range of issues. Ian Davis of McKinsey is another on the A-list.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou ranks as the most desirable party guest, genial to a fault. John Studzinski of HSBC (British if we stretch a point) is the best disco dancer - well, the most energetic, anyway. John Neill of Unipart asks the toughest questions. He ought to be a journalist.

And Davos wouldn't be Davos with-out Fleet Street's finest, as we used to know them. Bill Keegan of the Observer has attended since William Tell was a boy. Larry Elliott looks enthusiastic and faintly disapproving of all these rapacious capitalists, both at the same time. (There must be a Guardian training course that teaches this trick).

The FT's Martin Wolf is appropriately sage and distinguished, with a splendid fur hat that looks real enough to alert the furphobes.

Anatole Kaletsky of The Times and Jeremy Warner of the Indie are there - and not for the skiing, they're careful to point out. Robert Peston of the Sunday Telegraph made his farewell appearance in that capacity, before his expenses go on to the licence fee as he replaces Jeff Randall at the BBC.

The current BBC were out in force. They are the only people who can hold a big party just for themselves. As a citizen-owner I felt proud.

To complete the party, Jack Straw was due in with his chopper on the Friday night. But the snow came down, and he had to make do with an Audi W12.

His was perhaps the toughest brief, in the hotseat on a panel about what to do about, or with, Iran. 'Search me' might neatly sum up the gist of his speech, but he put it nicely, and managed without quoting George Bush's penetrating assessment 'Iran is not Iraq' - a wise saw that all Americans use these days.

But in spite of the sizeable British contingent and the battalions of Americans, the Chinese and the Indians were the stars of the show. Lumping them together is misleading, though: their tactics are interestingly different.

The Indians showed up en masse, talked endlessly about their economic miracle, handed out gifts-a-go-go, draped banners on all the hotels, sponsored the last night Gala Soiree, and laid on a full-throttle Bollywood floorshow - not for the faint-hearted. Everyone showed up, creating an authentic 'Delhi airport at 2am' atmosphere.

The Chinese were far less scrutable. No parties, no gifts, few spokesfolk, yet somehow still more impact. But not all the attention was positive, in spite of the vertiginous growth rates. Futurologists are beginning to ask if it can go on like this, with signs of social unrest and repeated environmental debacles.

Will China continue onwards and upwards, as its leadership steers a careful reform path? Most countries that have reached the current Chinese level of GDP per head have encountered popular demands for more political involvement.

How will the leadership respond if that happens? I heard no persuasive answers - even Michael Douglas seemed stumped by that one.

India, by contrast, scores well on the democratic scale, even if the coalitions that its electoral system produces are hard for outsiders to understand. Its entrepreneurs are ahead, too: Lakshmi Mittal's audacious bid for Arcelor has turned heads, whatever the outcome. Infrastructure is the Indians' problem. With an airport like Zurich's, and Swiss trains, Mumbai could be the financial capital of Asia.

Which leads to the biggest question discussed at Davos. If Bombay now has to be Mumbai, why are the films not made in Mollywood? Again, Brad and Michael could offer no guidance.

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