Almost 2,000 years ago, in the midst of a financial crisis, the Roman emperor Caligula seized grain boats to make a temporary floating pontoon bridge two miles long in the Bay of Naples.
He dressed in gold armour, purple silk, and jewels, and rode across with his army. He lazed about for a day “as if resting from battle”, then rode back in a chariot pulled by Ancient Rome’s most successful racehorses. He gave a speech in praise of himself, and the bridge was dismantled.
Caligula, in the remaining years of his insane reign, demanded he be worshipped as a god, made his horse a priest, taxed weddings and prostitutes, murdered his senators on a whim, and became a sex-crazed, incestuous sadist who burned through the Roman equivalent of Jeff Bezos’ bank account.
The people never did get their grain. Rome suffered a famine that was blamed on the bridge stunt, and thousands starved to death. And this weekend, as if to prove there is nothing new under the sun, seven of the most powerful people on Earth have turned up in Cornwall to see how much of our time and money they can waste in order to make themselves look good.
The summit has pledged to be carbon-neutral, plastic-free, recycling-friendly, and sustainably-fuelled. One of the main topics is the climate crisis, in which the ice caps are beginning to look like an aged mojito, prehistoric diseases are expected to emerge from the permafrost any day, and David Attenborough will soon be reduced to spluttering, incoherent, rage.
Each of those seven world leaders has flown to Newquay, even the one who didn’t have to. He did at least get his picture taken on the steps of a plane with a £900,000 Union flag on the tail, and a Twitter storm.
But you probably didn’t know that, to bring us just one Joe Biden, the Americans require SEVEN jets – Air Force One, a decoy Air Force One, two transport planes for The Beast and its motorcade, another two 747s for the security detail – and another carrying two helicopters, currently flying sorties to no real purpose around Cornwall.
Luckily for us, the US president managed to squeeze all the Secret Service agents, counter-assault team, electronic countermeasures, press officers, emergency ambulance, and nuclear codes into 30 vehicles, rather than his usual 50.
Uncle Joe’s on the down-low, but Chiverton Roundabout is a no-go.
And despite the name this is not a summit of seven world leaders. Aside from the men, and one woman, who run Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, USA, France, and Canada, there are two top bods from the EU, and the premiers of South Africa, South Korea, and Australia. India’s Narendra Modhi is dialling in on Zoom, but only because his Delta variant makes him about as welcome as a cup of cold sick.
They bring with them hundreds of others – security, press, spin doctors, diplomats, civil servants, negotiators, and an armful of spies. Carbis Bay is, effectively, a cocktail shaker for new types of coronavirus. You might think this many visitors means the tills go kerching in Kernow, but no.
When the last such summit was held in Northern Ireland, it cost almost £100m, but only 40% of that was spent locally. The Falmouth Packet reports that it cost the province £23m directly, with no noticeable benefit to local business.
The 2005 summit at Gleneagles, meanwhile, cost Scotland £60m to host, and brought in £64.7m in trade, although local retailers reported a “significant drop” in sales beforehand. The UK government had to bung another £30m in the pot to help police the protests.
Cornwall has been told the G7 might bring it £50m. The policing bill alone, so far, is thought to be £70m.
Policy briefings are coming out of the G7 every day, because many of the decisions and negotiations have taken place already. G7 health ministers met last week – more air travel, whoopee! – and their environment ministers announced fresh climate targets on May 21.
Most of the leg work has been done, via email and conference call by junior ministers and civil servants. Announcements we have yet to hear were agreed by the leaders before they even left home. Others are decided but delayed, in the hope of wringing a concession from one of the others.
Yet this is not a jolly. They do work long hours, in little rooms, with the advisors shuttling between them to hammer out last-minute deals. GCHQ and its sub-contractors, who’ve been ‘painting and decorating’ Cornish hotels for the past six months, probably work round the clock, too.
Amongst the bread and circuses was an agreement last week for the G7 to commit to a minimum level of 15% corporation tax, in order to stop avoidance by multinational companies who move their profits offshore.
Seeing as the G7 countries already charge between 15% and 30%, it makes no difference to them and is about as ambitious a plan as Boris Johnson scratching his arse and wondering if he can fit another truckle of Cornish Yarg in before dinner.
Coupled with it was a plan to tax, and redistribute, profits of big tech to the countries in which they make sales, rather than just where they’re headquartered. Last week Chancellor Rishi Sunak called it “a historic deal” and “a huge prize for the British taxpayer”. This week Private Eye, which did the sums and is more inclined to tell the truth, reports that under this agreement both Google and Facebook would be paying less tax in the UK than under our Digital Services Tax, which we agreed to abolish in order to get this brilliant deal.
If we’re terribly lucky, the G7 might agree to pay for a billion vaccines to help the rest of the world’s 188 countries survive the pandemic.
Which is great, but would be more useful if it was six billion which is how many people the rest of the world actually consists of.
The back-of-the-beermat maths, then, shows that we’ll be spending millions to host a meeting about climate, covid, and taxation in which these seven people decided to burn oceans of aviation fuel, promised tax cuts to Mark Zuckerberg, allowed 70% of humanity to remain a reservoir for ever-evolving new variants of Covid-19, and produced climate targets that, we must assume, involved a bet on how many air miles they could rack up before the people who elected them all drowned, froze, or burned to a crisp.
Cornwall did not need exposure on the world stage as a tourist destination – Poldark did that for free, and it’s already rammed with visitors and second home-owners. It likely won’t make any money out of it, while the British taxpayer is paying 6,000 police to not do something else.
What do we get in return? Images. Alpha male body language. Fashion, fanfares, and oh look! The Queen’s been wheeled out.
For the past year, these egos have been working from home, like the rest of us. Diplomacy still happened, agreements and policies hammered out. They could have carried on like that. But then they would not have had the same attention.
They would not get a photo with Kate. They would not be treated, by quite so many people, as being quite so special. There would be significantly less media noise about renewed special relationships, and rather more about the small print of their dodgy deals.
But with a summit, there’s a shiny spectacle, and no time to think about how Joe Biden got overruled on corporation tax. No time to ask about Chinese concentration camps, or the gangster squatting in Russia, or why their only meaningful contribution to climate change was to burn half a rainforest just to get down the A30.
The G7 summit is a festival of hot air and lies we could surely have done without. Like Caligula’s bridge, after the weekend the security fencing and electronic surveillance will be dismantled, and all that will remain is a fuzzy memory of someone splashing about in the sea to no useful purpose at all.
Ancient Rome was lucky – they had only one egotistical narcissist with an attention deficit. We’ve got seven.