David Cameron has two weeks to save the world

At three big international summits being held in the UK over the next fortnight, nothing less than the fate of the world’s poorest people is at stake.

At three big international summits being held in the UK over the next fortnight, nothing less than the fate of the world’s poorest people is at stake. Not to be overly dramatic about this, but the UK is about to play host to two weeks to save the world. OK, maybe that is a bit overdramatic.

This afternoon in Hyde Park activists and campaigners will gather for ‘The Big IF’. It’s the first time in eight years that the UK development NGOs have pooled their resources and campaigned together. I’ve got my white wrist band, but will a big party in the park really achieve anything?

The campaign is asking for a lot of different things. There are no less than seventeen demands covering eight categories: tax, nutrition, land, biofuels, agriculture, climate change, transparency and accountability. “What do we want?” OK, that might be too complicated, so “when do we want it?” “Now,” of course. When might we might we actually get it?

There are some causes for optimism. This weekend David Cameron hosts a ‘Hunger Summit’ and campaigners, led by Save the Children, hope to squeeze a billion dollars out of the US, the World Bank and the EU. This kind of cheque book signing, or “pledging” of existing aid budgets in the case of the UK, is a relatively easy, soft pro-government agenda. Of course child nutrition is important, but is only one part of the much wider IF agenda.

The following weekend, at another summit, Cameron’s “golden thread” will be weaving its way through the thorny issues of the ‘three Ts’: trade, tax and transparency. That might sound like pretty big agenda but, as Kevin Watkins at the ODI says “you can park expectations on trade” because it’s not going to happen.

Tax dodging is a hot issue, but can a global deal be done? Long-time tax campaigner Melanie Ward of Action Aid warns that a deal with tax havens could leave poor countries “out in the cold” and “would be a victory for self-interest and continued subordination of the world’s poor, rather than progress towards justice”. Tax is a far more challenging agenda for the Government. While Cameron has talked tough on tax, he has shown little sign of action when dealing with tax havens, many of which are, after all, still British overseas territories.

That leaves us with ‘transparency’. As Kevin Watkins explains, “the problem is that transparency initiatives are at best weakly linked to wider strategies for building capacity, strengthening the entitlements of marginalised groups, and giving the poor a voice”. Significant movement on this agenda is more likely to come through revisions to the UN’s Post 2015 Development Agenda, where civil society at least gets a name check, if not yet a tangible target. To better understand why ‘voice’ matters, read Civicus President Jay Nadoo’s passionate call for the voices of the global south to be heard among the professionalised global debate.

So what about the actual G8 summit itself? Like every big leaders’ summit, a lot will depend on the work done by the sherpas ahead of the event itself. You can’t expect the heads of the eight richest countries in the world to just rock up and magically find a consensus. They arrive only in time to dot the ‘i’s, cross the ‘t’s and smile for the photo op. So the next few weeks are crucial, because this is the time that UK Government Ministers will be calling their opposite numbers to thrash out the details of the deal.

The toughest area of all could be preventing land grabs, the more structural issue that the hunger summit will park and leave for the G8 to sort out. So even if the fortnight starts with a victory at the hunger summit, it could end in defeat for the main aim of the IF campaign: Enough Food for Everyone. Then what? Will the UK development NGOs go their separate ways, pursue their own agendas and refuse to work together again for the next eight years, until the next time the UK hosts the G8? Or will the campaign continue onto Russia next year, when Putin hosts the G8, the G20 and, coincidentally, the Winter Olympics?

Having all the eggs in the G8 basket was something IPPR & the ODI warned against at the start of the IF campaign. The whole premise of ‘IF’ was that it was contingent. But that nuance might have been lost on the public. Having such a wide ranging agenda means at least some success is guaranteed but the complexity has made it harder to get the public engaged. With hindsight, a simple focus for this year on tax might have been a better strategy. But there is no doubt that UK development NGOs should have done more to build, sustain and deepen public engagement over the last eight years.

IF is not ‘Make Poverty History’ and 2013 is not 2005. Blair, Brown and Bono at Gleneagles feels like a lifetime ago. But to quote the great Nelson Mandela on the steps of Trafalgar Square, “sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that great generation.” No pressure Dave.

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DFID 2008-2010 and is now Head of News at IPPR

He tweets: @RDarlo

Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square in 2005. Photo: Getty

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder