Davos ought not to succeed. Why on earth should the world’s business and financial community, with a leavening of politicians and princes, trek up a mountain to an overpriced resort, to spend much of their time sitting in an Audi (the official car) traffic jam, where the only interest lies in distinguishing the A8s from the A4 Quattros? (Aston Martins can’t fit the snow tyres, I am told, or the Russians would take theirs along).
Each year, the invited and the salon des refuses compete to be as dismissive as possible about what they are, or are not, going to do. Will Hutton kicked off this season with a bitter piece in the Observer, condemning Davos Man and all his works. He knows whereof he speaks, as a 20-year veteran. I shall be sorry not to see him leave the hotel for the slopes on non-filing days – four out of five for a Sunday journalist. But George Soros, who is here as usual, told me he “hates it”, but always attends.
His argument is that the “network effects” dominate all the other inconveniences. It is the same phenomenon that sustains the City. Banks are there because the others are. One day this will change, just as Babylon ceded its place as the world’s financial centre, but for now the position of Davos seems fairly secure: indeed the event has got bigger and bigger.
One sustaining dynamic is the existence of several tiers of participation, reflected in the colour of your conference badge. Whether intentionally or not, Klaus Schwab – the original begetter and still in charge – has borrowed from Scientology, where initiates rise through the ranks in an attempt to attain that mysterious state of being “clear”. So every time you think you have reached the “access all areas” roadies’ nirvana, you discover there is another, yet more privileged layer of membership. For a while, I thought the top level was known as IGWEL, the Informal Group of World Economic Leaders, with its own lounge and coffee machines. How proud I was to have a special badge with a hologram where the Davos logo normally sits.
But as in the best computer games, there is always a “next level” to which to aspire, just when you think you have seen off the competition.
I must renounce these ambitions today. I have cascaded down to the “faculty” grade. We are the gadflies – not members exactly, and certainly not Igwellians. We prod and provoke. We question and challenge, but nicely and politely. A few orthogonal opinions may help the digestion, but not too many facts. Facts can be quite antisocial at a convivial gathering, as every London dinner party host or hostess knows. Idees recues are much better companions for a long evening.
So we prepare to harness our horsepower to the cause of “resilient dynamism”, this year’s chosen theme. It will be tough, with only fondue and fendant (an amusing Swiss white wine) to sustain us through the week.
Howard Davies will be writing from Davos for the FT A-List throughout the week.