The MT Diary

The oracle of Tripoli; Greeks in post-Olympic boom; Paris abuzz; Chinese euro-puzzle.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

'Representation is the denial of democracy.' So reads the delphic billboard in Tripoli airport. It's a quote from Gaddhafi's Green Book, still the Bible of the Libyan revolution. I needed the services of Our Man to elucidate.

The general drift, I gather, is that a true democratic leader needs to be in direct touch with the people, whose views should not be filtered and distorted through elected representatives. Sounds persuasive. I suppose it is broadly the approach Labour adopted in choosing Gordon Brown. Nothing so vulgar as a contest with rival candidates. Just one great man communing with his people, a la Gaddhafi.

When our new prime minister begins plastering Heathrow with slogans from his book on courage, and sleeping in a tent in Green Park, we will know the revolution is upon us.

The Davies family hadn't been to Libya since 1943, when my dad drove a tank into Tripoli to liberate its citizens from the fascist yoke. Churchill took the salute from Monty as the Eighth Army rolled by on its return from El Alamein. There is a photo of the scene in our ambassador's residence, above the grand piano.

Tony Blair's reception, on his farewell tour, was not quite on a par. Such tanks as we have are otherwise engaged in assisting the Great Satan in Basra. But the UK connection is surprisingly strong. Libya's deputy prime minister studied in Manchester; the governor of the central bank is a proud Sheffield graduate; the British Council has a place on the sea-front, from which it organises conferences and educational exchanges a-gogo. It seems to be one country where Blairite engagement has paid off.

Libya also boasts two stunning Roman cities, Sabratha and Leptis Magna, with no-one there at all. Imagine having Pompei to yourself. You can't? Nor could I imagine a solo climb up to the Acropolis, which was so busy when I called into Athens recently that I abandoned an attempt to pop in between meetings.

Greece is booming: the growth rate has doubled since it joined the euro, boasts the European Central Bank. Though I prefer to think that the reason is that both its governor and the Greek minister of finance are endowed with an MSc Econ from the LSE.

The country's growth rate did not, as it feared, fall off after the 2004 Olympics. So the London Games may well inflate construction costs, distort transport investment, cost north of £10bn while leaving no useful legacy, cause a disastrous drop in arts funding and display our embarrassing weakness in the main events. But we can hope to recover from the disaster quite quickly.

Paris, of course, deperately wanted the Games, which was the only good reason for London to win, but it seems to have got over it. It's now buzzing with excitement as year zero of the Sarko era begins to unfold.

Nicolas Sarkosy's Grande Tente cabinet, with Bernard Kouchner at the Quai d'Orsay, has unsettled the socialists. It's a bigger coup than David Cameron's recruitment of Greg Dyke to run for Mayor of London would have been.

In other respects, Sarko does have some similarities with the Tories - on immigration and law and order. But somehow I can't see him committing not to open any more lycees. In that respect, France is a kind of Buckinghamshire writ large.

You can, moreover, still open new grammar schools in Beijing, my next stop. Both Dulwich College and Harrow are effectively doing so. Funny old world, as they say. The local market for their offering looks strong. As, indeed, is the market for everything else.

The Chinese economy is expanding at 11%, the Shanghai exchange has been going crazy - though it is not for the faint-hearted, with one-day falls of nearly 10% on a couple of occasions recently. And in Beijing they have invented a new area, confusingly called Financial Street, in which new banks and brokerages are sprouting like mushrooms. It was only six months since my previous visit, yet I was lost. I recovered my bearings only by finding an elderly KFC (vintage 2005) and navigating from there.

There are two proud new buildings for the regulators, the bank and securities commissions. Not quite as imposing as the beautiful FSA building on Canary Wharf, but close. Might the Chinese merge them and set up the CFSA? It's more likely than a Chinese Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

On financial matters, the Chinese tend to look to London, and generally like what they see. But they have again begun to ask about the euro, after a spell when no-one thought it worth a mention. Now that the eurozone is picking up and the east Europeans are joining, what is our attitude in the UK? Shouldn't we be stoking up the incinerators so they are hot and ready to dispose of a billion or so sterling notes?

I try to explain that support for the euro in London is 'the love that dare not speak its name' and that a decent political forecast of a UK joining date might be the London Olympics after the 2012 one, or 2076 (we last took on this incubus in 1948, remember). 'Aah,' they smile, 'you English with your famous sense of humour.'

Britain could not wish to remain on the margins of the EU indefinitely, they reason, because the political consequences would be too severe. We must have a cunning plan. If only.

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