Categories: Credit Crunch / Political spin

7 April 2009


G20: if only they’d treated us like grownups

Initial reports suggested Gordon Brown’s Labour Party gained three percentage points in the opinion polls after last week’s G20 summit in London. However, a poll in today’s The Times suggests that the “New World Order” bounce for Brown was lost in the row over MPs’ expenses and in the post-summit analysis that exposed Gordon’s spin.

There was something of the truly spectacular about the show Gordon Brown put on in London. The world’s political leaders embraced each other, while he masterfully orchestrated proceedings as summit chairman. Their display of seeming common-purpose was inspiring. As today’s Times reports, their positive approach certainly rubbed off on the public,

Moreover, the back-drop to the summit displayed a compelling mixture of British pomp and circumstance. Not least with Mrs and Mr Barack Obama and the Queen playing their charismatic and regal roles in glamorous locations. This added more allure to the whole event.

On reflection, one would have expected to see a higher priority given to the standing of the leaders of the real new world order in China, India and Indonesia. They were virtually eclipsed by the media-hogging grandstanding of the old powers Germany, France, Britain and the US. That sort of thing needs sorting out.

However, there’s no denying that the summit contributed to a measurable temporary mood swing in public confidence about the fate of the world’s economic future. It even caused a short-term stock market rally. But yesterday’s WSJ reports that the benefits of the summit were over-inflated:

On balance, the G20 meeting ended as a reality check. The leaders arrived in London with the media billing it as virtually the Committee to Save the World. Led by the Obama Presidency, we are living through a period of inflated roles for government in the lives of nations. What emerged from London suggests these are mere mortals and the real work of economic recovery will have to resume when their planes touch down back home.

The much-pumped $1 trillion stimulus package also does not hold up to scrutiny. The traditionally reliable Dominic Lawson pointed out in The Sunday Times:

The figure of $1 trillion duly made the headlines, but on closer examination – always a good idea with Brown – it transpired that the “new money” (as opposed to re-announcements of existing pledges) amounted not to the magical trillion but the equivalent of $250 billion in so-called “special drawing rights” from the International Monetary Fund. Even this is an off-balance-sheet item (another Brown favourite) since the IMF’s special drawing rights do not count as “real money” in the books of any of the lending nations.

That boost to IMF funding came just days after IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn admitted his body has a major image problem that makes it difficult to allocate funds to third world countries because of deep-rooted mistrust stemming from past mistakes. He told a conference in Africa that:

For political reasons, it has become impossible for some governments to tell their public opinions that they will seek help from the IMF.

But during this crisis there is going to be no easy solution to improve the IMF’s image. For it does not take a genius to figure that many of the problems facing the world economy are indeed structural and that they will require drastic reforms – many of them painful – to set right.

The WSJ also exposes some other aspects of the G20’s so-called progress;

On taxes, the G-20 makes a forceful commitment to eliminate “tax havens”. The nominal point of this effort is to ensure fairness and eliminate “banking secrecy.” In fact, it looks like a last-ditch effort by nations whose spending has reached such levels that they’ve become desperate for tax revenue.

The much heralded new world order’s standard system of banking supervision might take years to agree. As the WSJ pointed out yesterday, the EU has been working toward such an objective without success for years.

I take no pleasure in reporting on the G20 summit in this tone. I wish things had worked out better for the long term. But they didn’t. Except that the protests outside the event were muted and mostly (though arguably not always) well-handled by the police.

But there is some good news, I think. Everyone knows Mr Brown always exaggerates the good he is doing. Everyone knows Mr Obama is long on rhetoric. I get the feeling that the peoples of the UK and the US are prepared to see their leaders a little more realistically than might be supposed.

In the UK in the mid-1960s and the late 1990s there was real disillusion amongst Labour voters as Mssrs Wilson and Blair were found to be quite right wing. Mr Brown has lost the power to disappoint us. There may be something like disappointment as Mr Obama’s fans find he and they still live in the real world. But I doubt it will be an intense let-down. If Brown and Obama only do quite well, the public will probably accept that as OK. Whether either would get re-elected is a whole other thing.

The G20’s positive media coverage reflects the public’s hope that its leaders shape the future. They accept it’s a tough business. There is more trust, or at least goodwill, out there than many suppose.

All the same, our leaders would have served us better if they had responded to our newish realism. The problem with last week’s PR campaign is that any short-term benefits it generated will in the longer term do more harm than good. Once the lack of substance behind the claims of founding a “New World Order” are exposed, the feel-good factor wears off. Surely, good PR has to be strategic and long term rather than short term and tactical?

Brown in that sense missed an opportunity at the G20 to rehabilitate himself and repair his tarnished reputation. Had he set a realistic tone and sent a message of limited, but worthwhile, progress, he might have won longer term public trust. But he could not resist first over-selling his expectations, and then over-selling his achievements. Thereby, he set himself up for a fall.

The challenge in Britain now lies with David Cameron’s Tories. It is for them – if they want to be leaders – to tell it as it is. They need to highlight the tough but necessary steps Britain’s – never mind the world’s – economy must take to get back to economic growth.

I continue to believe that the real political trick now will be to talk frankly. The signs are good that the public can take it.

2 responses to “G20: if only they’d treated us like grownups”

  1. Vikki Chowney says:

    Hi Paul

    Thanks for your comment on my G20 post. I largely agree with you on the political outcomes of the Summit as per your post above, however, I do feel that my interpretation of the events was slanted towards the postive aspects of getting people involved.

    My optimism stems from encouraging unpaid people, some with no specific expertise to provide their opinions and reach out ot their own networks. These are people who don’t neccessarily understand the complex in and outs of decisions being made. We had bloggers representing China, and India, and the benefit of having them there (however small a representation it was) was a step in the right direction.


  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Thanks, Vicki.

    Readers wishing to read her original post on the G20 London summit can do so here: