We Citizens of Nowhere have made our home in Davos this week. Where else? Those who think we’re a remote global elite hiding away behind barbed wire in a luxury Swiss ski resort have decided to travel all the way here to tell us. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell is braving the Glühwein to lecture us on Marxism. Theresa May is back, flush from her successful outing last year when she warned the audience here that they’d lose elections unless they understood how out of touch they’d become. Donald Trump is swapping cheeseburgers for Swiss fondue on his mission to put America first. They are all welcome. Davos Man understands that the struggle takes many forms.
One ritual at Davos remains the annual fondue dinner generously hosted by my friend Michael Spencer in a restaurant, and usually attended by David Cameron, myself and others. It started in opposition, continued throughout government and has survived life after office. Because various prominent broadcasters and editors also came along, it never leaked out — the media never rats on itself. Except one year, when a Greenpeace activist stumbled into the room by mistake and found Boris, David and me laughing away. It became known as Pizzagate. That’s because our expert spin doctors managed to persuade those in the British press who weren’t invited that we’d only been eating pizzas and had next to nothing to drink. It was an early example of fake news. Another year, the editor of a highbrow magazine (not this one) managed to set fire to his napkin with a candle by mistake, and then, in a panic, threw the burning napkin away — on to David’s lap. He then threw it on to mine. More panic ensued, before it was eventually put out. But for a moment it looked like we’d delivered the dream headline: government goes up in flames.
Just sometimes, members of the elite prove to be surprisingly capable — as two terrific films I’ve just seen show us. Darkest Hour is a reminder of the singular role Winston Churchill, grandson of a duke (and son of a young chancellor of the exchequer) played in ensuring Britain fought on against Hitler in 1940. The Post is a story of how the heiress of the Washington Post defied her (all male) advisers, and risked alienating her social circle, to publish the Pentagon Papers and expose lies about the Vietnam War. Gary Oldman is rightly tipped for an Oscar for his spluttering, irascible, anxious and vulnerable premier. But I thought Meryl Streep’s shy, understated but steely Kay Graham was genius. She sums up the task of a free press in her hesitant last lines of the movie: ‘We don’t always get it right. We’re not always perfect. But I think if we can just keep on it, you know? That’s the job, isn’t it?’ Yes it is.
I am hugely enjoying editing a paper with a much longer history than the Washington Post or, indeed, most British papers. The Evening Standard is over 190 years old. Proof it has always been read in high places came this month when a cutting dated 7 November 1889 was found under the floorboards of the monarch’s private apartments during renovation work at Buckingham Palace. Queen Victoria, like our growing number of readers, knew where to get the best news.
Two of those who’ve made more than their share of news are former US Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz. They invited me to a lunch last week with current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at Stanford University in California, where I periodically teach as a visiting professor. I am sorry to disappoint Trump haters, but Tillerson was rather impressive. So too is Condi Rice, who gently asked her successor how he copes with the President’s tweets. ‘By not following him on social media,’ was his deadpan reply. Most understated of all was Mr Shultz. When we were asked to introduce ourselves ‘briefly’ at the start of lunch, the second world war veteran, adviser to Eisenhower, 62nd US Secretary of the Treasury (under Nixon), 60th US Secretary of State (under Reagan), who had just celebrated his 97th birthday, replied: ‘George Shultz, ex-Marine.’
I was never in the army, but now, in my mid-forties, I try to stay fit with visits to a military-style workout called Barry’s Bootcamp, where you pay for the privilege of being ordered to run faster and jump higher. After an hour, I feel elated and look exhausted. It was at this moment a fortnight ago that two young Bootcampers asked for a selfie. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked, picturing what a sweaty mess I must look. ‘Oh, yes,’ they said. ‘We’ve been writing an essay about you this morning.’ ‘I guess you study modern economics’, I said, a little chuffed. ‘No, history,’ they replied. Oh well.
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