The MT Diary

BoJo's Thai pal; Aussie minister Swans in; praise from President Yudhoyono; Tsar turn.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Over the past month, it hasn't been necessary to leave London to see the world. The world has come to us. A succession of presidents, prime ministers and finance ministers have beaten a path to our door. The G20 summit was the main, orgasmic event, of course, when Gordon bestrode the globe like a colossus. But there was a lot of foreplay, as countries came to lobby the Dear Leader for their pet wheeze, and some post-coital activity too, as they tried to understand just what it was they'd agreed. In the midst of it all, there was a Mexican state visit, no doubt agreed in the mid 19th century, as these things are. The Met Police were thrilled by that coincidence.

It's an occupational hazard at the LSE that when these grandees have a spare hour in town they like to give a speech, at a prestigious, neutral-sounding venue, surrounded by attentive and adoring young people. Our students can do attentive, though they wisely tend to reserve adoring for distinguished profs, rather than politicians.

First up were the Thais, both the prime minister and the finance minister. The PM, Abhisit Vejjajiva, is an Eton chum of BoJo's. The finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, by stark contrast, was at Winchester. A recipe for dysfunctional government there. Luckily, some policy co-ordination is possible, since they both went to St John's College, Oxford.

For most of us, Thai politics is quite incomprehensible, even when it speaks in a pukka public-school accent, as the PM does. Former PM Thaksin Shinawatra was forced out by public protest, although his party keeps winning elections. Now there are demonstrations against the new lot. All I can confidently say is that the present incumbent has never owned Manchester City and, as they say in Parliament, has no present plans to do so. Vejjajiva is a Newcastle fan, so however tough things get in Bangkok, it won't be as bad as life at St James' Park.

Then an Australian came by. I have always thought that Kevin, as in Prime Minister Rudd, is an inappropriate name for an Australian. There aren't many Kevins playing Aussie rules, I wager, and certainly there are none anywhere near the Ashes squad. Fortunately, the finance minister is much more authentic. In Canberra, if you can't be called Bruce, then Wayne is surely the next best thing.

W Swan had a clear view of what he wanted from the summit, which was pretty close to the eventual outcome. But Australians regard the financial crisis as a northern hemisphere phenomenon. They've done a decent job on their banks - so far, at least. Along with its Canadian counterpart, their banking system is probably in the best shape internationally, even though the Australians had a sub-strain of the British over- borrowing disease and an associated house-price bubble. Maybe a long study tour Down Under for Gordon and Alistair is in order, some time after next June, when they have more time.

Indonesia gets little coverage in our newspapers, even though it's the world's largest Muslim country and has undergone a democratic makeover in recent years. The president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is the first to be directly elected by popular vote and has kept a steady hand on the tiller since 2004. He gave an impressive performance and tactfully attributed part of his success to the fact that his defence minister is an LSE alumnus. They're everywhere.

George Soros then interposed himself in this line-up of leaders. He could be PM of Hungary if he felt like it - the position is effectively vacant - but he has bigger fish to fry. He is one person who, I think, did influence the shape of the summit communique through his single-minded focus on the problems of the poorer countries and his pressure for more resources for the IMF. There will be more national bankruptcies, a la Iceland or Ukraine, before this storm has blown itself out, and the Fund needs the resources to respond. After G20, it is much better placed.

Last up was President Medvedev, Tsar of all the Russias. Dealing with the Russian security apparatus was quite an experience, second in its rigour only to the US. But Medvedev was a relaxed guest, with a good line in self- deprecation, while still uncompromising on the issues about which the Russians clearly feel strongly: Nato enlargement, Georgia, Chechnya and bottled water, where our humble Malvern was rejected for a Russian brand.

I did manage one brief escape, to the Gulf. Kuwait is affected by the oil price, as you would expect, but Kuwaitis are robust enough to resist, and their democratic experiment, while curious in its operation, is providing a safety valve for popular concerns about the future.

In Bahrain they're pensive, but they are the tortoise in the Gulf financial race, and the hare - Dubai - is in some trouble. Why does Ozyman- dias come to mind when one flies over? Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. Some day, one feels, the sands of the desert will reclaim their own. I spent the night in the airport, victim of a failed Emirates connection. The incoming flight arrived in time to make the London departure, but we sat on a remote stand for half an hour waiting for a bus. Were they were trying to make me feel at home? Perhaps the airline, like the city, has grown too fast for comfort.

Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics

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