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July 01, 2005

Who are the worst G8 humbugs: politicians, protestors - or the public?

Posted by Richard D. North

Following on from his series of arguments on G8, Live8 and Africa and on G8, Humbug and Global Warming, Richard D. North asks, who are the worst G8 humbugs: politicians, protestors - or the public?

The G8 meeting in Gleneagles will be a scene of posturing, and the worst of it will be outside the fences which intemperate and mostly empty-headed modern protest has made necessary.

We are all prone to talk nonsense about international aid and global warming. To speak with strict honesty is almost always brutal, and Blair is very like the rest of us in being reluctant to seem that. When Blair says, "I fear for my conscience" on Africa, which of us does not agree, and then begin to waffle, as he does? So we - and he, which is absurd say not only that we care but that the world's leaders ought to do more. Cheered on by the media, Blair joins us in turning to the grown-ups: to Bush and the Americans.

Should we not smell a rat, right there? Here's the media so forgetting itself as to become briefly both patriotic and firm in its affection for our "Establishment". Blair will have an easy ride whilst he promotes himself as a protestor rather than a realist. He can congratulate himself on his political astuteness, as he strums his guitar in his few moments of recreation. Perhaps his soundtrack of choice is John Lennon's ridiculous Imagine. There's something rather more noble, and very fortunate for Tony Blair, in Bush's quiet acceptance that this prime ministerial grandstanding is par for the course, and even excusable in the circumstances Blair faces. In quite another way, Tony Blair has been very blessed in having Chirac's huffing and puffing. The French president has opened up a debate which Blair can turn into a handsome home win. Just as Europe's agricultural subsidies are at last widely (if a little simplistically) seen as leading to African starvation, Chirac insists that they are the one EU policy which is non-negotiable.

Bush's position is, mercifully, not nearly so messianic as Blair's. It has much more to recommend it. The Americas are far outspending us in whacking the worst of the world's tyrants (at least, those who are "do-able") and in developing technologies to deal with greenhouse gases (which help cause global warming, and whatever that will turn out to do). Bush has doubled US aid to the Third World, and been bold in asserting that for the sake of both donor and recipients, how it's spent matters.

But the great thing about the US polity is that it accepts that there are real limits to what American tax-payers will put up with, not least because theirs is a culture which does genuinely believe that the state should not aim to be the main agent of doing good at home, let alone abroad.

It would be a great beginning if Gleneagles became the place where leaders told their electorates that it is both hard and wrong for governments to get too far ahead of their voters. The leaders might add that much of the good people say they want to do, they can do for themselves. When if the scientists and economists persuade us that global warming matters, that it's our fault, and that we should aim to make a difference then you and I really can cut the West's emissions, just as we can hugely bump up our charitable donations to the Third World.

Insofar as these matters are the business of states, what they most, certainly what they first, owe us is good information. Western governments have only been fairly good in this role, and their failures have mostly come from misguided attempts to appease and schmooze campaigners who are, naturally both alarmist and interventionist. Still, most of what most of us know about climate change and development, we know because governments have tried to understand them.

It is handy for sceptics that Friends of the Earth and Christian Aid have lumped together the two main poster-children of their concern: they have insisted that climate change and African poverty are linked, and that Western action generosity is crucial to curing both. Every part of these propositions is open to debate by thoughtful and compassionate people, but what matters here is that those who do believe them have delivered a double-whammy to their own souls.

But do many people seriously share the campaigners' enthusiasm for reframing our lives? When push comes to shove, today's pleasure for ourselves and our families loom very much larger than the suffering of people unborn or unknown to us. Understanding this may explain Bob Geldof's shift toward begging for government action. He used to want our money as a matter of private charity, now he says he wants justice from states. This is neat, because governments are easier to bully than are citizens. The protestors hope to hijack democracy: to attain their goals as a gift from the pocket of the state. They'd rather not go to the hassle of persuading the tax-payers and voters of their kindly but mostly socialist ideas.

We need to resist this two-fold shuffling of responsibility from ourselves. We should be reluctant to have the good we want in the world done through states, except where necessary. And we should be reluctant to sub-contract our idea of virtue and wisdom to campaigners we know to hold views well to the left of the mainstream. Where we do want our leaders to act, we the public need to show them that this is so. We could begin by actually being generous and actually forgoing flights. These actions would show both that we understand the part of virtue which is ours, and are prepared to deliver it.

For his part, Blair should do whatever it is he really wants his government to do (which is only a little) not because he cares a vast amount, but because he knows that most of his voters do not care very much. He knows the real maths: a million or so people in the street really ought to be worth little to him compared with his polling material which shows large, enduring and maybe unshiftable voter indifference or hostility to the protestors' causes. He should say so, and thereby fulfil the politician's first act of courage: plain speaking.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.


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