So. This is power. I’m attending a conference organised by ...I can’t say... in ...I can’t say... to discuss the cultural, political and economic future of mid-revolutionary Middle Eastern states. I’m travelling with the rulers of the world, Sirs and Baronesses, trustees, consultants, thinktankers, lobbyists, doers of good works, vested interests, diplomats, patrons and all that secret population of people who realise that fame and power are not the same thing, shun the former, shore up the latter and occasionally parcel it out to carefully chosen allies. These people are a breed apart. They’re not good looking. They’re not well dressed. They’re not witty. They’re not even that interesting. But they’re super crunchy hardcore power players, world-rulers and society-changers and no mistake. They are vigorously of-this-earth. They talk politics, economics and brute facts. They’re weird, but I like them, and since I’m doing a lot of this kind of stuff – it’s called cultural diplomacy, which always sounds faintly sinister – I’ll have to get up to speed, fast.
These are the people who, at school, were on every committee, put themselves forward to be the captain or prefect of everything and did it really well, got all A*s at GCSE without trying, involved themselves in every campaign, rose in their universities’ student unions and have been involved in politicking and improving the world (or bending it to their advantage), in some way, all their lives. They wield incredible influence, but downplay themselves. After a while I stop asking anyone what they do, especially after a slippery, handsome Hugh Grantish chap blibbers to me, “I’m hopeless really, don’t listen to a word I say, I have no culture at all. Everything I say is rubbish. I’ve only just taught myself how to use the Internet.” I later find out he’s written countless highly regarded books about international affairs, is a much-garlanded academic and been involved at the sharp end of US politics for fifteen years. I’ve learned that when someone tells me their Arabic is “absolutely terrible”, it means they’ve got a PhD in it, and that if they say they know the Arab world “a little bit” it means they’ve spent the last 30 years being posted everywhere from Libya to Iran to Yemen and have at least 20 half-brown children helping to populate the Arab League.
“What are the Chatham House Rules?” I ask a passing Peer. “Is it that you can only tell a secret to one person at a time?”
“When a discussion takes place,” she tells me, “you can’t report the person who said it. You can report what was discussed, but do not attribute it to anyone, because it’s politically dicey and it might go against the official line. At this stage we’re just trying out different ideas.”
I meet a posh chap from one of a youth advocacy group. He looks very clean. I ask him what his group is all about.
“It’s quite odd, it was set up by the Foreign Office originally, but now it’s more youth-led. It sent a delegation to the World Youth Forum in 1948. Trustees must be under twenty-six but the average age for the British Youth Parliament is teens.”
“That’s disgustingly wholesome,” I tell him.
There are nearly a hundred speakers at the event.
“Are we really making a difference or just pissing in the wind?” I ask another nearby chap.
“I think, the latter,” he carefully replies, “I think it’s something They’re doing to say They’ve done it.”
“Do you think, afterwards, the information travels upwards to the ones who make the decisions?”
He doesn’t know.
I overhear two people complaining that thinktanks “bend with the wind” and “throw out bits of research and hope it goes along with the flavour of the times.” I still can’t work out what most of the politicos, consultants, trustees and thinktankers actually do in their daily lives and nobody I ask directly will give me a straight answer.
“Who’s here?” I ask someone, looking around at everyone talking in English, Arabic and French. The very big wigs all know each other, obviously.
“The great and the good,” he replies.
“And the low and the bad?” I ask.
This is what Barack Obama does all day long: summit meetings all over the world, all day, every day, talking and talking, without a break, and for real, not pretend.
“Have you been on many Unmentionable Events before?” a woman asks me.
“No, when I wrote fiction I went on lots of cultural things, tours. And I have a lot of contacts within Unmentionable. But I’m so political, I prefer this.”
“By political, are you affiliated with any particular group?” she asks warily.
“No, no. Small p political. Whenever I’ve met a party politician or process politician I’ve been chilled by them regardless of where they are on the political spectrum,” I say.
“I completely agree with you. I’m in the [REDACTED] but as a [REDACTED].”
“It’s that steely ambition politicians have,” I say, “and whenever you talk to them you can sense them wanting to know what you want. But you might not want anything. You might just want to make friends.”
“I’m with you,” says my new friend. “They judge you according to their own standards.”
So, what is the idle chatter of the great and the good? I eavesdrop. They’re talking about the weather, the mansion tax and a US political sex scandal involving the FBI.
“There have been some quite serious communication failures, I think, at the BBC,” says someone.
Then there’s some amazing insider gossip which goes like this:
“So... what’s happening with Russia?”
“It’s extraordinary! They’ve suddenly decided they love us.”
“David Miliband really fell out badly with [REDACTED].”
“I’m sorry, I have to say [REDACTED] really didn’t deserve those threats from NATO.”
“Well, I’ve had lots of very uncomfortable conversations with [REDACTED] that the Foreign Office...”
They move on and I then hear someone boasting loudly,
“It’s so funny – I’m reading two books, neither of which have been published yet. Talk about being ahead of the game!”
“Do you read Prospect mag?” someone asks her.
“Yes I do. Yup.”
The man she’s talking to seems to be some kind of expert on China. He complains,
“The thing that really pisses me off is that most people or many people these days think they have a book about China in them and most of it is extraordinarily naive. Part of the problem is the sheer level of ignorance about China. There are some Chinese academics willing to talk about matters as they really are... illegal appropriation of land from peasants... the level of corruption....”
“Do you know Bigwig? Peter Bigwig?” the woman interrupts. “He was chair of Bigballs Willey, now Vice Chair of Important Big-Big...”
The man goes on,
“I just went out to [REDACTED], worked with [REDACTED] for five years, went over to the [REDACTED] in Beijing. I speak Mandarin. Books on China are so superficial.”
“I tend to concentrate on US foreign policy towards the East, the Middle East, towards China. I was coming back this Sunday and they asked me to go to the Gulf States and then to go to Saudi. I don’t like to do that, two trips in six weeks,” says the woman.
“I’m actually going. I’m going. I’m flying directly from [REDACTED] on Sunday to [REDACTED],” says the man.
“What I like to do is the big powers, because if anything happened to them...”
“Traditionally, people in my position, they want to be everywhere, visit all the Unmentionables...”
“Yes – also – and I, I read a lot so I find it much more useful to read books instead of sitting in airports, travelling, meeting people.”
The woman behind me on the plane is reading the FT. Actually reading it.
In the airport we arrive at is an advert showing a boy tugging at his father’s trouser leg, looking up at him accusingly. The strapline goes,
“What would you tell your child if they asked you why you never invested in Eastern Poland?”
The conversation around me is about a very famous politician.
“He has quite a lot of dinners around security and defence issues. I’m frequently the only woman in the room, so I make up the gender allowance. He’s having an event on Syria and I definitely want to go to that. He denied it but I heard him say the [REDACTED] Trust is going to keep him on for another few years.” The conversation goes out of focus and then sharpens again. “House of Lords, House of Commons Committee... and they did an enquiry into expenses.... absolutely shocking stuff. There was a link from the web site to his consultancy! I tell you, the politics of it got absolutely filthy.”
“There is an adviser to the government here,” someone tells me.
“Is he a nondescript man, in a grey raincoat, called Mr X?” I ask him.
“No. We have a name,” he says, sinisterly.
“There was supposed to be a women’s panel but it was dropped because of ‘cultural sensitivities’, apparently,” someone else tells me.
“What, the [REDACTED] couldn’t stand women daring to talk amongst themselves?” I ask.
I can’t get anyone to verify whether the detail about the women’s panel is true or not. What I can confirm is that at the conference is one table of extremely surly Middle Eastern men with closed, thick, dissatisfied faces, who speak to no-one but each other and visibly look furious whenever any woman speaks about anything and any man speaks about ‘progress’, ‘pluralism’, ‘diversity’, ‘equality’ or anything of that nature.
The few instances of outright misogyny I hear come – saddeningly – from women. At some point I’m talking to a nice man and it occurs to me that I wrote an article about the organisation he works for, after a staff member of his contacted me blowing the whistle on a major conference they were organising about the economic future of Europe. They had invited 12 men to speak at it, and 0 women. The man tells me defensively that they did get a few women in the end, that “we were very happy with the panel and how it went, and then there’s my wonderful colleague Fiona (not her real name) who’s just enormously clever and [blah blah blah].” This, verbatim, with no editorialisation, is the very first thing Fiona says to me when I meet her at breakfast the next day:
“Oh, you work for the BBC? I want to ask you something. I want to ask you: why is [revered woman broadcaster] so fat? Why is she so fat? What is that about? She can barely move. And who’s that other one, that woman from the charity? [Camila Batmanghelidjh]. I know they’ve got their theory: they swan in like that and everyone goes, Ooh, they’re here, but what is that about?” She then namedrops several other people to try and scope me out. Then she drops the name of a respected veteran female newspaper editor. “She’s a good girl.”
There are individuals from all points on the political spectrum including those with extremely right wing views who, for some reason, are always the liveliest, wittiest company. Here we go:
“Have you read Peter X’s book? Former editor in chief of [REDACTED]? His book’s out this week and it is fantastic. It attacks that ultra-liberal idea of, hey, let’s have open borders, everyone can come in, let’s all live together.” A sour pause. As someone who works with asylum seekers and displaced people and knows both the laws and the reality of these people’s lives – as well as the many pejorative myths surrounding asylum - I’m almost coming out in hives. “I don’t know. Maybe that’s your attitude,” the person goes on. “I’m worried about the students. Students coming in – what is this ‘acquired right to remain’? My cousin did it. Came here to do a PhD and never came back. Came here with a husband and baby. Never went back. One of the things he does take on in this book is the asylum and refugee system. And in certain circles you’re just not allowed to criticise the asylum system, the court system. The first leakage happens through work; the second leakage happens through family reunions.”
“It really bothers me the way the Home Office leaks really bogus figures,” says a guy, mysteriously.