POTENTATES, politicians and panjandrums like swanking around the place, that being rather their raison d’être, but the rest of us don’t seem to get much out of the deal. The time, effort and (often large, and largely taxpayer-funded) salaries of probably tens of thousands of people will have been poured into the meeting of the leaders of the G7 countries in Cornwall last week, but to what end?

Elected representatives from seven (though not the top seven) rich countries got to demonstrate to the world that elbow-bumping is one of the stupidest, and stupidest-looking, ideas anyone has come up with. They showed that large limousines are ill-adapted to narrow Cornish roads.

They made vague declarations – free of irksome nitty-gritty – on emissions, vaccine donation, “resilience” against global crises, corporate tax rates and what a shame it is that horrid countries aren’t nicer, and that there’s not much we can do about it. Carrie and Wilf went for a paddle. Justin Trudeau, for once, avoided doing his Black and White minstrel act. Emmanuel Macron complained about Brexit. Angela Merkel complained about Brexit. Joe Biden got to have tea with the Queen.

Perhaps the millions of dollars shelled out by the citizens of the UK, the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan for their leaders to eat (presumably) pasties and cream teas was well spent. Or perhaps it’s a bit pointless for these folk to swan in on their private jets to bang on about climate change while watching the Red Arrows burn through aviation fuel at 385 gallons a minute, and ignoring – in front of the world’s media – rules on international travel and social distancing that they imposed on the rest of us.

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Pomp and display are, of course, intrinsically pointless. Which, paradoxically, is largely the point. Showing off, in everything from Trooping the Colour to the use of Marine One, is in part its own justification, and shindigs such as the G7 meeting – or Cop26, the UN climate summit to be held in Glasgow in November – are part and parcel of that, even if the logistics of holding the meetings undermine the message they are designed to send.

We all know that sending hundreds of functionaries and apparatchiks off to stay in foreign hotels – or hosting them in Carbis Bay – costs taxpayers’ money that could be spent on a) tackling climate change b) helping the poor c) improving trade or international relations. But, without the meetings, would it be spent?

Most of us who have been working from home for the past year and a half have realised that much of the time, money and energy expended in the travel and meetings that many office jobs involve is wasted. You get far more done if you’re allowed to get on with your job, rather than constantly attending conferences where middle managers drone on to no good effect. But it’s also true that this enforced isolation has made it obvious that some things do only get done, or can be done much more easily, if you have face-to-face meetings.

The G7 meeting is at least rather less idiotic than self-interested knees-ups like the preposterous World Economic Forum at Davos, and probably rather more effective than talking shops such as the UN agencies. But you can get a fairly clear idea of its limitations, as well as of its priorities, just by looking at its membership.

It is not quite, as it might once have been, a club of people who run the countries that run the world. Three of the world’s top ten economies – China, India and Brazil – are not represented. Russia, on most measures the world’s 11th-largest economy, used to be in the club when it was the G8, but got chucked out after annexing Crimea.


And there is now, in any case, the question of whether traditional nation states – even if they are rich, Western, democratic and with sizeable military capacity – are where genuine power resides. Global tech giants such as Facebook, Amazon and Google call the shots on many issues, and control the infrastructure on which much of the global economy depends. The market capitalisation of Apple alone – at about $2.1 trillion – is bigger than the economies of two G7 members, Italy and Canada.

So part of what the G7 is almost bound to be for is defending the interests of the member countries against similarly powerful countries that aren’t in their club (which in practice means China and Russia) and transnational corporations that are often more powerful than the majority of countries.

Hence the emphasis in this most recent meeting on creating global norms on corporation tax; the leaders gathered in Cornwall must know that attempts to get more out of the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are largely pointless. It will remain quite easy for huge corporations to minimise their liabilities. But what matters to the politicians is sending a message that they are still, when it comes down to it, more important and powerful than any commercial enterprise, no matter its reach. (I think they may well be wrong about that.)

When it comes to China and Russia, there is the disappointing realisation that liberal democracy and capitalism are not – in the history-ending fashion cheerfully promoted by Francis Fukuyama – inextricably linked and mutually co-dependent.

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This is going to remain a headache for the democratic nations, because China is the world’s second-biggest economy, and supplies an enormous proportion of consumer goods. Russia, though less powerful economically, has huge strategic importance, both geographically and as a supplier of energy (particularly to Germany). Both are controlled by autocrats and have terrible human rights records.

All this shows that the G7 stands for what you might have supposed it did: the assertion of the power of Western states to impose taxes, for technocrats to interfere in markets, for making token efforts to aid developing nations, and producing generally ineffectual noises about the shortcomings of despotic governments, but not loudly enough to interfere with trade.

I don’t find that surprising, but it’s disappointing when this meeting was being hosted by a government nominally committed to the new, improved, buccaneering, global Britain, minimising the state, opening up markets and asserting individual liberty, none of which it seems to be doing much about.

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