1/1/14. Typing the date, I am paralysed with fear as I imagine myself, pencil in fingerless-gloved hand, writing home from a rat-infested trench in the fields of Northern France (rats are one thing – but France?). Even the quality press has added to my waking nightmare. Both the New York Times and The Economist got in early last month, running articles explaining the clear similarities between 2014 and 1914 and cautioning against complacency that might lead to history repeating itself. This is potty nonsense – First World War Redux would never be as frightening as the original because, apart from anything else, it would be in colour.
But even those Yuletide broadsheet offerings were positively sane when compared to the leader The Economist ran for – what I think was – the 90th anniversary of the Great War in – what must have been – July 2004. Heading for our summer haunts, we readers were requested to look around the crowded beaches and spare a thought for all those never born due to the 1914-18 carnage who, otherwise, would presumably have been sunning themselves on the sand next to us. There are lots of reasons that people are not born, or should not have been born, but I wonder if those poor Anzac soldiers landing on the beach at Gallipoli in 1915 realized they were sacrificing themselves so that future generations of sun-worshippers could slop on sun-screen and frolic around on that self-same beach in their Speedos and Bikinis.
I prefer to try to look ahead to 2014 a little more hopefully. Today there are massive threats, very different to those of a hundred years ago, but since the end of the Blockbuster sequel to World War I ( imaginatively named World War II ) there have been major strides forward in international cooperation leading to peace and brotherhood among men. There was a small, but not insignificant, step forward in the dying weeks of 2013 in the Doha Round of Trade talks held in Bali, Indonesia.
The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was established in 1947 to deal with issues of trade and, specifically, break down the barriers caused by tariffs, quotas and import bans. Each “Round” of talks, often with exotic names like The Kennedy Round and The Uruguay Round, has specific goals which, when achieved, mark the end of the Round. In the early days, when a relatively small number of countries could dictate to the world, Rounds lasted a matter of months.
Well, the Doha Round has been going since November 2001 and involves 159 countries (the GATT morphed into the WTO during the previous Uruguay Round). Charged with a long list of goals including tariff reductions, non-tariff measures, agriculture, labor standards, environment, competition, investment, transparency and patents, as at the beginning of December 2013 it had achieved…. precisely nothing. Then came the breakthrough. Under the expert guidance of the new Brazilian WTO Director-General, the 159 countries compromised their way to an agreement on trade facilitation which essentially meant cutting red tape and, hence, trade costs – a move that some estimate could raise global output by $400 billion annually. It remains to be seen what effect this will have on the number of Customs Officials in the Green Lane at airports around the Globe, so don’t hold your breath.
Moving forward, the Doha Round is expected to concentrate on the less controversial issues (I am not quite sure what it has been doing for the last 12 years) and support Plurilateral treaties (involving blocks of countries ) such as the proposed Free Trade Agreement between the US and EU.
Of the 9 Rounds so far, the most efficient, measured by length of time over number of participating countries, was the Torquay Round in 1951, lasting 8 months and involving 38 countries. I have a sneaking feeling I know why.
In case you are not aware, Torquay is an English seaside resort. I last visited Torquay in 1965 and until thinking about this Post had no interest in ever going back. When John Cleese and the Monty Python team filmed on location in Torquay in 1971 they stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel, which had been established by Donald and Beatrice Sinclair in 1964. It is quite possible that some of the delegations to the 1951 opening conference stayed at the Sinclair’s other hotel, Greenacres, opened immediately after the War. In TV interviews John Cleese and Eric Idle later told of Sinclair’s eccentricities: not liking a comment by one of the team, Sinclair threw his suitcase out of an upstairs window; in reply to a guest who asked when the next bus was due, he chucked a bus map at him. Cleese said he was the rudest person he had ever met. But, thanks to that chance encounter, arguably the greatest sitcom in the history of television was born – Torquay’s own Fawlty Towers, with Basil Fawlty playing Donald Sinclair (Cleese told interviewer Sir Michael Parkinson that the only adjustment he needed to make to Sinclair for the part was his height).
Sitting here now, I can picture a bunch of post-war Continental Europeans partaking of their meal in the dining room of Greenacres while Donald Sinclair goose-steps around declaring: “Don’t mention the War”. It would be enough to get everybody to agree about everything just as long as they could check-out and get back behind the Maginot Line as soon as possible. A Happy and Peaceful New Year to us all.