The second most powerful person in the world flew in yesterday. Not to Heathrow, but to Birmingham Airport. No red carpet. No Prime Minister to greet him (nor even Deputy Prime Minister, nor even Chancellor of the Exchequer, nor even anybody governmental at all). No guard of honour by the army with gold braids or even the local constabulary with silver braids. Just a bunch of seedy-looking executives from the nearby MG car factory.
After a tour of the factory, he visited William Shakespeare’s birthplace at Stratford-on-Avon and then soliloquized on a garden seat about his country’s reverence for “the greatest writer in the world”. Where he stayed the night I don’t know. The local Travel Lodge perhaps? No, surely not. The Lord Mayor of Birmingham would by then have bestirred himself and found him a place where at least they serve a Full English Breakfast.
Which, come to think of it, the Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, might be eating right now as I write this piece. But soon he’ll be whisked down the M1 and then given the full treatment, no doubt. Photos with David Cameron at the front door of 10 Downing Street and, this afternoon, tea and biscuits with Queen Elizabeth and the Duke at Buck Palace.
“What on earth are you here for?” David Cameron (or the Queen) will certainly not be asking him. “Oh, I was just passing by and thought I would drop in,” Wen Jiabao will certainly not be replying.
So I’ll have to surmise. Could it be that this isn’t a state visit, but much more important than that? Could it be that David Cameron was ensconced yesterday somewhere over the Channel with all the other prime ministers and chancellors of Europe desperately trying to save the Eurozone? The general strike in Greece tomorrow might bring about a full-scale collapse of its government and its default — and possibly the unpeeling of the Eurozone itself as bond investors flee the whole show.
But why didn’t Wen Jiabao drop into France or Germany? After all, as a pretext for a visit, those countries no doubt keep the birthplaces of Voltaire and Goethe in good repair. But I’m being facetious. The fact is that Premier Wen has been back and forth between Beijing and Berlin and Paris many times in the last six months, telling them that China wants the Eurozone to survive. At least that’s what China has been letting known publicly — and increasingly so recently.
No doubt President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel have got the message by now. But perhaps David Cameron has been . . . well . . just a little too obstreperous recently. Although England is not in the Eurozone itself, it’s in the European Union. It’s also a member of the IMF. Either way, we’ll have to fork out yet more billions of pounds if Greece is bailed out with yet more loans. And, increasingly aware of his own rocky political tenure here, Cameron has been sounding off recently that we’re not going to play ball.
Oh, and I almost forgot! Premier Wen also had a chat with BBC TV’s business editor, Robert Peston, yesterday. In effect, and in the nicest possible diplomatic language, Wen was saying that if only the UK government would sort itself out a bit then we could have oodles and oodles . . . and oodles . . . of engineering exports to China. We could be as prosperous as Germany! It was the gentlest slap on Cameron’s wrist. Later this morning, and inside 10 Downing Street, Wen will probably deliver a full-scale bollocking. (A crude word, I’m afraid, but the exact one for this occasion.)
China needs the Eurozone to survive. It’s in its interest to — at least for a few years longer while its renminbi (yuan) rises to parity with the euro and the dollar. My guess is that David Cameron will scuttle back to Europe later today with a completely changed attitude. My guess also is that Greece’s Prime Minister will send Evangelos Venizelos, his strong-man finance minister (and recent minister of defence) back to Athens to get the troops out and make sure that tomorrow’s rioting crowds don’t tumble into their Parliament and take over — as they did in Georgia not so long ago (2003).
Will I be right? Will Greece be saved for the Eurozone (even if, as has happened before in Greece, it will actually become a military dictatorship in the guise of a civilian administration)? As an old has-been industrial chemist I believe in the scientific method — that any hypotheses worth speaking of must be testable. I’ll know tomorrow.