Britain – Closed For Business

Sunset over Tripoli

 

Tripoli

From the perspective of Tripoli, which hosts this week a huge construction and building trade fair that has attracted 427 foreign companies drawn from 26 countries, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague would seem to have a point when urging British businesses to “worker harder” to compete against overseas rivals for deals.

Of those 427 foreign companies participating in Libya Build 2012, not one – yes, you read that right – not a single one is from Britain. Not that the U.S. has distinguished itself either, the business of America is apparently not business, when it comes to Libya at the moment.

Hague’s comments about the need for British business to get stuck in – an updating of Norman Tebbit’s “get on yer bike” remark — hasn’t gone down well with British business.

Former CBI director general Lord Digby Jones, who served in the Brown government as a trade minister, lashed out Hague, complaining on BBC Radio 4 about the weakening of his former department, UK Trade & Investment. “To absolutely decimate that and cut it and then stand up and say ‘come on, get on and do it’, that’s a bit rich.”

But Libya Build 2012 organizers don’t blame the UK embassy in Tripoli or UK Trade & Investment for the non-show of British business. They say that British diplomats were highly supportive and that the 4-day exhibition was well marketed in the UK.

“I was surprised at the lack of take-up by British firms,” says Rania Mohamad, head of international sales for Libya Build 2012. “What we heard was that they were anxious about the security situation.”

Not that nervousness – and believe me it is misplaced when it comes to Tripoli – deterred the more robust Italians or French. There are 134 Italian companies here – from large construction concerns to small furniture businesses and environmental solutions firms.

According to Maria Carmela Ottaviano, head of special projects at the Italian Institute for Foreign Trade, Italy’s trade promotion agency, Italian exhibitors were keen to maintain good commercial ties between Italy and Libya that were fostered by Silvio Berlusconi.

The Italians have two pavilions exclusively for their own use and were so over-subscribed that some exhibitors from Italy have had to take refuge in other pavilions – there are 35 pavilions in all covering 17,000 square meters.

A saleswoman for an Italian manufacturer of security doors told me that they had not done work in Libya before the toppling of Col. Gaddafi but that they were keen to test the waters. She praised the Italian promotion agency for playing a big role – from helping with transportation to visa facilitation and with translation services.

The French have not been shy either to explore opportunities in Libya’s new business environment, nor to remind Libyans of France’s support for their “Arab Spring.”

There are more than 40 French companies exhibiting as well as wheeling and dealing at Libya Build 2012.

“I am very surprised at the absence of British and American firms here,” said Audrey Corriger, an export specialist with Chambon, a manufacturer of factory tools for assembly-line woodcutting and wood-design. “We are hoping to find an importer for our machines,” she says. Chambon hasn’t worked in Libya before, although it has in other North African countries.

“We decided to test the waters,” she says. She admitted that they had wondered if this would be premature to be doing ahead of the assembly elections slated for June 19 but they decided “you can never promote too early.”

Chambon is hoping also to capitalize on French support for the rebels. “As Sarkozy was so supportive of the revolution, we hope this will benefit us.”

Apparently, however, David Cameron’s backing for the overthrow of Gaddafi didn’t strike British firms as a selling point.

Some 632 companies in all are taking part in Libya Build 2012. There are large contingents from Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt and UAE, which is fielding 110 companies. Tiny Malta has its own pavilion where 40 companies are showcasing their products, from lifts and electromechanical systems, to construction materials and furniture and fittings.

“Maybe it was a bit far for the British to travel,” mused Corriger.

A Labour Breakthrough?

Britain’s Labour Party made big gains yesterday in the local government elections and today party activists are celebrating what they see as a breakthrough for leader Ed Milliband.

And there is much to celebrate for them. Not all results are in from the elections for 128 English councils, 32 Scottish councils and 21 Welsh councils but it looks like Labour will capture more than 700 council seats from the Conservatives and wind up with 39 percent of the national vote.

More promising for Labour, the party has won control also of councils in the south and east of the country away from their traditional heartlands, places like Exeter, Southampton, Plymouth, Thurrock, Harlow, Norwich and Great Yarmouth.

But is this the breakthrough? It is often a mistake in British politics to project from mid-term local elections and assume the same result can be repeated for the national parliamentary contest.

Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair suffered mid-term local election setbacks as prime ministers before going on to win subsequent general elections. In both cases the defeats of the governing parties were severe.

In 1981, two years after losing office to Thatcher, Labour gained 988 seats, with the Tories losing 1,193. In 1999, William Hague’s Tories gained 1,348 seats and Tony Blair’s Labour Party lost 1,150 seats.

In the national contest turnout is higher as are the stakes. Midterm elections are treated by many voters as an opportunity to grumble (1). By a big margin voters still believe the coalition government’s spending cuts are necessary (by 54 percent to 27 percent according to one recent opinion poll).  But they are allowed to express their dislike of the medicine.

The fight now for Labour and the Conservatives is surely going to be over Liberal Democrat defectors. Which side they swing to could well determine the next general election.

1. Re-reading this posting I think “grumble” is too weak a word for how many Brits feel about their plight now. “Shriek”, I think in hindsight, would have been a more accurate verb.

Blair Memoirs, Hague Denies — The UK Media

The British media is just getting sillier. I wasn’t sure it was possible but after watching and reading the coverage this week of Tony Blair’s memoirs and of the gay rumors swirling around the Foreign Secretary William Hague that is the only conclusion I can reach.

On Blair, the U.K. media has been focused mainly on the former Prime Minister’s disclosures about how poor his relationship was with the dour and obsessed Gordon Brown, his grim-faced Chancellor of the Exchequer. Poor old Tony had to put up with constant conpsiring by Brown and his gang – allegedly Brown even triggered the party investigation into the money-for-honors scandal that dogged 18 months of Blair’s premiership. Some commentators rightly castigated Blair for his playing the victim in his memoirs – ye Gods, he was the Prime Minister and should have sacked Brown.

But the news pages have been taken the Blair claims far too seriously instead of questioning far more strongly whether the former Prime Minister should be writing in the vein he does. Virtually all politeness and conventional form have been thrown out in the book by Blair – he dishes on former colleagues, reveals private conversations with members of the Royal family, etc. One expects this kind of thing from Labour’s gosipy “prince of darkness” Peter Mandelson but should a former Prime Minister be writing in this way?

Blair has produced a “soap book” — not a serious, substantial tome. His chapter on Iraq – and his refusal to accept that he and Bush made any mistakes – should have been the media focus and not the “Brown was mean to me” stuff.

And Hague? After putting up with weeks of a semi-public media whispering campaign, Hague decided earlier this week to rebut blog-launched allegations that he had slept with a male aide. To add credence to his rebutal he went into detail about the difficulties he and his wife have been facing in trying to conceive a child. Now the poor man has to put up with claims that his denial is a public relations blunder – too much information, according to The Times.

The BBC has been running the Hague story as its second lead most of the day with news anchors questioning public relations “experts” and spin-doctors. Sheila Gunn, a former colleague on The Times and now a political consultant, argued that Hague has just prolonged the story by “giving it oxygen.”

Well, it didn’t need any external oxygen before – the blogger Guido just carried on making the allegations with nothing to go on except a photograph showing the aide and Hague walking along the street dressed GQ casual and smiling and the fact – not connected with the picture — that during the election campaign they shared a room with twin beds in it. And with nothing to go on now, the media is keeping the gay allegations going by questioning the public relations efficacy of his denial. And this is journalism?

Hague was utterly right to issue a denial and I don’t see how disclosing the problems he and his wife are facing in trying to create a family will do him any harm with the public. As the newspapers watch their circulations decline — and as the BBC watches its standing fall — maybe they should all rethink how they cover the news.

Churchill: America Made The Big Decisions

David Cameron is still paying the price for his remarks about Britain being the “junior partner” to the U.S. in the “special relationship.” During a town hall meeting in Hove yesterday he was accused by a pensioner of “denigrating” his country. Cameron responded immediately by conceding that he misspoke when he used the date of  “1940” during his “junior partner” interview with Sky News on his trip to the States. But that didn’t assuage the pensioner. His previous corrections as to the date have also fallen on deaf ears. The critics actually care little, I suspect, whether Cameron was talking about 1940 or the 1940s and beyond.

Admittedly, his “junior partner” comment was bold – and some would say foolhardy. But his remark about Britain being the junior partner in the alliance with the U.S. during the Second World War and since are accurate.

Of course, 1940 was the triumphant year for Britain. Without British defiance in 1940, the game for Western Europe would have been up. The stubbornness of Winston Churchill and the Battle of Britain pilots mitigated the Nazi achievement. But the then British Prime Minister was in no doubt in December 1941 what the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor meant. “So we had won after all!” was Churchill’s immediate response.

Read the opening chapters of Max Hastings excellent book Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, if you want to understand how the Americans (and Russians) increasingly called the strategic shots. In the immediate months following Pearl Harbor,  “the Americans deferred to his (Churchill’s) greatness and to his nation’s experience of war,” wrote Hastings, a highly respected WWII military historian and hardly an unpatriotic journalist.

He continued: “From 1943 onwards, however, Churchill’s influence upon the Grand Alliance dwindled almost to vanishing point. The Soviet Union displayed the icy arrogance it considered appropriate, as paymaster of the vast blood sacrifice necessary to bring Hitler’s empire to bay. The United States made plain its intention to determine strategy in the west and invade Normandy in summer 1944 – Operation Overlord – as its forces waxed in might while those of Britain waned.”

And Hastings quotes the significant players themselves. Churchill’s private secretary wrote that the British war leader is “by force of circumstances little more than a spectator.” “It was America who made the big decisions,” Churchill acknowledged. And that isn’t surprising considering the huge materiel production of the U.S. and the massive numbers of troops it deployed.

On some of those “big decisions” the Americans got it wrong – Roosevelt was wrong to concede so much to Stalin when it come to the division of Europe, although what in reality he could have done to stop the Iron Curtain descending is another matter. But British strategic vision about the conduct of the war against Germany was deeply flawed, too. Churchill’s obsessive notion of rolling up the Germans from the south, his Mediterranean Strategy, was nonsense and he remained wedded to the idea of penetrating Germany through Italy and Yugoslavia as late as the winter of 1943-1944.

As Hastings writes: “Yet the American vision about the most important strategic decision of the western war, the assault on the continent, had proved superior to that of the British.”

On a personal note, my father, Charles Dettmer, a British Commando, fell victim to the Mediterranean Strategy. He was badly wounded and lost his arm on the heights above Salerno in 1943. Not that he blamed Churchill for that! He remained for years later, critical, however, of the “soft underbelly strategy” and mystified why Churchill thought it a good idea of slogging up the length of Italy to get to Germany. And sitting where I am now writing this blog posting on my terrace in Italy overlooking the high hills and mountain ranges of Lazio and Umbria, I can see why.

Historical accuracy aside, why did Cameron feel it necessary to make his “junior partner” remark? Most professional and lay commentators maintain that he wanted to appease President Obama.

One Daily Mail reader writing online to the newspaper commented: “Sadly DC showed his inexperience in dealing with ruthless politicians like Obama who will do virtually anything to look good in the eyes of the US electorate. If that means bullying our Prime Minister or BP, that is what he does. Cameron’s mistake was to act in a fawning, obsequious manner towards the charismatic Obama. However he has now discovered that his own electorate has a tad more backbone than he displayed.”

But as Cameron emphasized in the town-hall meeting at Hove yesterday, he didn’t make his “junior partner” remarks to the U.S. President. He first came out with it to Britain’s Sky News – not something carried on U.S. television. Obviously, he knew the comment would be picked up elsewhere and in the U.S. But his selection of who to say it to first – a British outlet – would suggest that the primary audience he had in mind was a British one. Again why?

I think what Cameron is trying to do is to prompt the British to understand that time and circumstances have indeed changed and that Britain’s place in the World has moved on and so should our thoughts about ourselves and therefore what our strategic and foreign policy thinking should be. Hence British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s talk of improving and strengthening our relations with the BRIC countries and of our place in Europe and hence the Prime Minister’s trip to India. This may be unappealing to British traditionalists and those who will not let go an imperial past and pomp and glory and wallow in WWII films, but it is realistic.