The MT diary

Bullionaires' banquet; veggies off-menu in boom-town Madrid; Eurobike rolling again.

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

Here is a Trivial Pursuit question to begin with: What is the largest dinner of the year in London? The Lord Mayor's Banquet? No way: it's quality, not quantity in the Mansion House and Guildhall. The Professional Footballers' Association's self-congratulatory bash? The sub-postmasters' banquet (guest speaker Jim Fitzpatrick)?

No, it is none of those unmissable events. I'm quite sure the honour goes to the London Metal Exchange, which, year after year, feeds 1,500 in the Grosvenor House, plus another 1,000 or more in several satellite events elsewhere, connected up with video links. It's an odd experience if you're the speaker, not being able to see half your audience. (Last year, the problem was solved when the other rooms voted to switch off a long-winded invitee).

In spite of its culinary magnificence, the LME bash is one of the City's best-kept secrets. After the scandals of the late '90s (remember the Japanese Mr Five Percent, Sumitomo's Yasuo Hamanaka?) the market almost went under. It was rescued by two determined chairmen, Raj (now Lord) Bagri and Donald Brydon. As a result of their steely determination, Metals Week in the autumn brings hordes of well-heeled, copper-bottomed visitors to London, as the world's commodity gurus assemble to fix prices ... whoops, sorry - to debate future trends. This year's rumour was that one of the Chicago exchanges was about to make a run at the LME. I hope not, and that their merger plans preoccupy them by their lake for a long time to come. London's caterers couldn't stand the loss of business.

The foreigner still likes to say that British food is dire. That seems wide of the mark to me - standards in hotels have radically improved - and five days in Spain without a salad leaf or green vegetable underlined the point.

The cochinillo (suckling pig) and the jamon iberico are terrific, but man does not live by pork alone, and how Jews and Muslims survive I can't imagine. The grey Iberian pig, however, is a fine beast. Unlike the sluggish British porkers, it scampers around the oak groves on its shapely legs. Salamanca, whose elderly university I visited recently, is surrounded by them. At least, I think they were pigs. It was hard to be sure through the drenching rain. In Spain in November, I discovered, the rain falls mainly from the moment you leave the plane to when you get back on it again.

It was possible to see, though, that Madrid is a boom-town. The amount of construction under way is quite astonishing, and the traffic is crazy. No wonder Spain is the European country furthest from meeting its Kyoto targets. Perhaps they should stop the pigs eating all the acorns, and grow the odd lettuce instead.

Athens is not quite so JCB-bound as Madrid: after the Olympics, construction fatigue is in the air there. Indeed, there is a bit of deficit headache as well. Come 2013, when there's no money around for any public works in London, after the Games have turned out to cost some multiple of the original estimate, we'll know what it feels like.

Unlike elegant and slumbering Salamanca, the centre of Athens University is currently being occupied by anarchists, demanding the release of some incarcerated terrorists. The police are not allowed on the campus. That may be one reason why so many Greeks come to London universities.

We mounted a debate for our alumni on whether Europe can develop a foreign and security policy to act as a counterweight to the US. More than 1,000 people turned up and, at the end, voted roughly two to one against the proposition that it could.

The Greeks, typically more starry-eyed about the EU than we are, surprised themselves by their reaction. And it wasn't our fault. I took two of the most Euro-friendly profs I could find (one is a Lib Dem peer, for heaven's sake), but they still served up what seemed strong eurosceptic meat to the Athenians.

But in spite of this setback for the Euro-enthusiasts in Athens, there and in both Madrid and Paris (where I also spent a day last month), the constitution is beginning to stir once again. Both Sego and Sarko have begun to talk about it as if it were alive. All the old metaphors about Europe as a bicycle that must move forward or we will all fall into the ditch are being dusted off for action.

It is still not quite clear how the tyres will be pumped up and the chain re-oiled, and there's a pfennig-farthing look to the Euro-velo just now, but something will be put together, I'm sure. As Yeats might have said, there is a rough beast, thinking its hour might have come again, slouching towards Brussels to be born. (WB was not a cyclist.)

In response to this emerging threat, British ministers are doing what comes naturally. They are adopting the John Major posture. Remember how he described the plans for monetary union as a 'rain dance' and forecast that the Delors project would never get off the ground? The Italians might now wish it never had, given the trouble it has caused them, but it is unwise to bet against these Euro-projects, however odd they look to us. Prime Minister Brown may find an awkward dossier landing on his desk in his first year next door.

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