Protesters sour spirit of free trade on ski slopes

By Jeremy Warner

30 January 2000

Tony Blair may be suffering in the opinion polls at home, but to judge by his reception among business leaders and policymakers at the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in this Swiss-Alpine ski resort, he is a demigod with all the right answers.

The same could not be said of the group of 300-400 anti-free trade demonstrators who descended on the exclusive business summit yesterday, undeterred by freezing temperatures, tight security and pleas by Mr Blair and President Bill Clinton alike for understanding of their cause and motives.

Police in riot gear and backed by water cannon surrounded the protesters, many of them masked, who smashed car windscreens and broke windows at the local McDonald's about two hours after Mr Clinton spoke. Carrying signs reading "Fight the WEF" and "WEF – meeting of murderers", they attempted to break the security cordon, but failed to get near the conference centre.

With business leaders representing a claimed 60-80 per cent of world production attending the six-day conference, the World Economic Forum has become a target for anti-globalisation protest. Soldiers were on hand to support police following threats to upset the conference, as they did a World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in December.

Inside the conference centre, however, most delegates were unaware of the demonstration at the other end of town.

Mr Blair had left Davos before the demonstrators arrived, but his brief visit was widely regarded as a triumph. To a British audience, his speech on Friday would have seemed nothing special. It was the same "third way" mix of free market economics, new economy techno-babble, parental values and Christian ethics that are Mr Blair's hallmarks, but he struck a chord with his audience of the world's super-rich and their executives. His ovation was longer and louder than that of even Bill Clinton, who spoke in much the same vein about the need for an "inclusive" approach in defending open markets, globalisation and free trade.

Michael Dell, one of the icons of America's "new economy" and like Mr Blair, a family man with three children, found the Prime Minister's message "compelling", and was in "total agreement" with all he said about the challenges of the new economy and the process of globalisation.

One senior German industrialist, who did not wish to be named, lamented the absence of such "inspirational leadership" in Germany. "There is a real crisis of confidence in Germany, with the scandal over Kohl and the economy falling so far behind the US. We need leaders like Blair," he said.

So what was it that struck such resonance with the massed ranks of the capitalist world? When Mr Blair spoke of "parental responsibility", education, and the need to establish in a globalising world a "value system for our kids", he seemed to be speaking to the heart of conservative-minded middle America. "People want a society free of prejudice but not free from order, rules and values," he said to vigorous nodding from his audience.

At the same time, his speech brought the language and message of America's booming new economy to the European scene. He urged reform of Europe's inflexible ways, and warned that the euro would not work without modernisation and cultural change. With most European businessmen, he was pushing at an open door.

[URL may be different next day if article is archived]