So now that Glenstrata is a go, should we be concerned?

The good news is that when it comes to transparency, bigger is (normally) better.

Vows have been declared and permission granted; the ceremony is set for the marriage of the two largest names in commodities – Glencore and Xstrata. The $76 bn merger to create Glenstrata is the largest in the industry’s history and yesterday was finally approved by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (Mofcom).

Previously, I wrote of how governments were fretting at the deal. Since it was first announced in February 2012, many have vented their disapproval of a marriage between the two largest commodities companies in the world. The deal was held up by Qatar, South Africa, the EU and China. At each hurdle, Glencore – the one wearing the trousers in this relationship – was forced to pay a little bit extra, or sell a few more businesses.

Yesterday’s announcement was no different: Glencore was forced to sell Las Bambas, a big copper project in Peru. The decision was inevitable from a Chinese point of view: Glenstrata would control over 10 percent of the world’s copper concentrate supplies and China is the world’s largest copper consumer.

So now that Glenstrata is a go, should we be concerned? Will Glenstrata be the Ayatollah or the Mandela of the world’s commodities? The word monopoly is too easily deployed, but when one company dominates so many essentials – thermal coal, ferrochrome, zinc and copper to name a few – there is reason for concern.

The world of commodities is traditionally discreet. An earlier blog I wrote on Marc Rich, Glencore’s founder, shows just how suspect it can be. Price fixing, sanctions busting, illicit trading are all buzz words surrounding the industry, let alone the environmental and human rights issues that follow mining companies into the darkest corners of the earth.

But there is good news. When it comes to transparency, bigger is (normally) better. The larger the company and the more stock exchanges on which it is required to report to generally means that it is forced to clear up its act. Just look at ENRC’s move out of the Congo in December, when it was accused of entering a dodgy partnership with the suspicious mining billionaire Dan Gertler.

More good news for transparency came the same day that the Glencore-Xstrata deal was approved. Greg Page, chief executive of the trading house Cargill, advised the commodities industry to embrace greater transparency: “The industry, as a whole, must accept its responsibility to behave appropriately, properly, ethically,” Page said. “There are lessons to be learnt from the banking sector, and the forced legislation it prompted and is continuing to prompt.”

The marriage of Glencore and Xstrata is now scheduled for 2nd May. Let’s hope the honeymoon precedents a new era of transparency.

Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.