Somehow I had managed more than a quarter of a century in journalism without ever going to Davos. It had become almost a badge of honour, the one gathering of global nabobs I had been able to dodge year after year. But here I am in the mountains of Switzerland, a new boy amid the pilgrims come to worship at the altar of globalisation. I am international by profession and inclination — could a diplomatic correspondent be anything else? — but I can report that this annual meeting of the world’s great and good makes itself easy to lampoon. One friend, also on his first Davos tour, says it is like a party conference for the guilty rich, a chance for elite business-folk to take time out from maximising shareholder value to worry about the world in which they make their profits. So here they are, flying in on thousands of private jets to express their concerns about climate change, agonising about social inequality after a morning on the slopes, fretting about populism before trying to catch a glimpse of Bono at a late-night party. Oh yes, some here do live the caricature. And yet, you know what? It is actually quite fun and it also kind of works. That is the guilty secret of Davos. There is no host country trying to impose an agenda. There is no laborious communiqué to be crafted and then ignored. There are no votes to be held. So the business leaders and heads of government are free to do what they want: to talk and listen, to network and recruit, to open their eyes and ears to new trends and ideas. One businessman tells me it is the only place where CEOs get to talk face to face without their lawyers, and that makes deals easier. OK, the World Economic Forum — to give this conference its true name — probably does not have to be held in a swish ski resort, and its participants do not have to indulge their guilty globalism in such comfort. But if Davos did not exist, someone would probably have to invent it.
The one thing for which I have no forgiveness, though, is the language of these events. The theme of this week’s meeting is ‘Globalisation 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. People talk of ‘multi-conceptual transformations’ without blushing. There are some here who introduce themselves as ‘global shapers’. Who writes phrases like these? This adjectival verbal diarrhoea is not just a barrier to comprehension, it also adds to the suggestion that this is a bunch of people talking to themselves in their own language to the exclusion of others. Send in the sub-editors! At the conference centre, there is a ‘Lactation Room’. And so there should be. But another word, surely?
The one thing about global elites is that they are as conscious of hierarchy as any human being. One’s standing in Davos is determined by the colour of one’s badge, the height of one’s accommodation up the mountain and the number of invitations one gets to the right parties. There are even rooms in the conference centre called ‘Senior Figures Lounges’. Once one gets past the lack of a possessive apostrophe, one can only wonder who really sees themselves as a ‘senior figure’ amid so many people with such a strong sense of their own importance.
This particular Davos is a touch downbeat. There is no Trump, no Macron, no May. Veterans tell me that it makes it easier to get around town. But, they add, there is perhaps less reason to get around town.
The problem with being a Brit at Davos is that Brexit hangs around you like a bad smell. Everyone asks what is going to happen. I have worked out how to avoid these enquiries. All you have to do is mutter sagely that there might be some kind of delay on the cards before they rush to tell you what they think is going to happen, which of course is what they wanted to do all along. And I can tell you that there is as much nonsense spoken about Brexit in Davos as there is in Westminster.
Davos presents one with a sartorial dilemma. It is genuinely cold, an ear-nippingly minus 16˚C at times. And yet one cannot justify breaking out the ski kit. What was just about appropriate for the slopes in the mid-1990s can be garish for a 21st-century conference hall. It also implies one is about to sneak off for a few cheeky chairlifts after lunch. So I compromise with thermals and a thick overcoat. The problem then is that one overheats indoors and is forever dressing and undressing. As I write this, I discover to my horror that after only a few days here, I have myself become Davos Man, gripped by trivial first world problems. I knew there was a reason I had never come here before.