Rishi Sunak is en route to New Delhi for the G20. These summits are strange, often frustrating events. Leaders have an awkward group photo in front of some local landmark, sit around a table reading out their speaking notes to each other, have a “working dinner”, and go to bed. Then, jet-lagged officials haggle through the small hours on the details. Generally, the longer the summit communiqué and the more subjects covered, the less its value and impact.
Just occasionally, the outcome will change the global landscape. Will Delhi be one of those? I doubt it. There is plenty to tackle: the threats of inflation and recession; the response to climate change; the war in Ukraine. But the stars don’t seem aligned for progress on these issues. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are staying away, and Narendra Modi, with an election little more than a year hence, seems content with a low-risk approach.
All of which might explain why the No 10 spinmeisters are making more of the Sunak-Modi bilateral than of the summit itself, and are talking up the prospects of a UK-India free-trade deal by the end of the year. Good luck to them. The idea has been around for years, but has always tripped up over India’s protectionist instincts (the House of Commons International Trade Committee has observed that only 3 per cent of UK goods trade to India attracts no tariffs) and its insistence that a deal includes thousands of visas. Should be an easy sell to the Conservative Party membership.
When first married, Vanessa and I lived in Suffolk. We have returned regularly over the past 40 years, most recently at the end of August. Its understated pleasures include the pastoral perfection of Dedham Vale, the bleak salt marshes of the east coast, and the ancient farmland-ringed villages inland. We visited Long Melford, which features in the Domesday Book. Its centrepiece is one of the finest churches in England, built in the 15th century of stone and flint – with not a trace of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete – thanks to the riches of local wool merchants. Stand on the village green, look towards Holy Trinity, and you are gazing upon a view that hasn’t changed in centuries: the timeless, beating heart of England.
Even if the Delhi G20 is as underwhelming as I expect, the forum isn’t a waste of time. There was one G20 that saved the world. It took place in London on 2 April 2009, amid the financial crisis, and was Gordon Brown’s finest hour. He was, in Barack Obama’s words, “the man with a plan”. He travelled exhaustively before the summit to prepare the ground, and he then bullied the assembled leaders into an astonishingly ambitious global rescue package. Friends who were on Brown’s team tell of a prime minister seemingly on the edge of madness, rejecting text after text as insufficiently ambitious. He bludgeoned the meeting into agreeing an extra $1trn for the International Monetary Fund, a $5trn new stimulus, and commitments to strengthen the oversight, supervision and regulation of global financial markets. The Brookings Institute said it would be seen as “the most successful summit in history”.
It was also the moment for a fine piece of diplomatic improvisation. The then French president Nicolas Sarkozy was notorious for ignoring the protocol that the host leader should hold his press conference before the others spoke and rushed to the microphone first. The British team were determined that, this time, Brown should be the first to speak. As the meeting’s end approached, a British official slid out of the room, infiltrated the technical area, and unplugged the sound system for the French briefing room. One advantage of hosting is that you know where the sockets are.
The naked Nineties
Before streaming services, if you lived abroad you missed those “water cooler” TV series that captured the nation. Thanks to Amazon Prime, we finally caught up on 1992’s The Camomile Lawn. It’s worth a watch, but feels dated. We have spent the past 25 years restoring a beaten-up Cornish cottage on the Roseland Peninsula, where much of the drama is set. The landscape looks magnificent, though it is dishonestly portrayed as endlessly sunny. But there is So Much Nudity in the show. And it’s so, as it were, comprehensive. How did they manage without today’s sex-scene coaches?
Poised to leave for my first summit, I asked a Foreign Office sage for his advice. He barked: “It’s simple. If you see food, eat it. If you see a bathroom, use it. If you see a convoy leaving, join it. It may be your only chance.” For the Delhi-bound, I think the advice still holds.
[See also: Why the rich keep getting richer]
This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain