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The United Kingdom's Approach to G8 Summitry

Nicholas Bayne, LSE

Prepared for "Prospects and Possibilities for the 2013 G8 Lough Erne Summit:
Trade, Transparency, Tax and Terrorism"

June 14, 2013, Belfast
Organized by the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queen's University Belfast
and the G8 Research Group, University of Toronto
with the support of the United Kingdom's Department for Employment and Learning, Newsdesk Media
and the Balsillie School of International Affairs
This conference was streamed live here. Watch the video here.
To find out more, please click here.

I fear you have to listen to me twice today. This morning I shall draw lessons from the past; later on I shall assess the present.
Right from the start, British Prime Ministers took a distinctive approach to the G7 and G8 summits:

Let me show how each in turn has put this strategy into effect.

Harold Wilson was only at one summit. He established the rule that the UK sherpa should be close to the Prime Minister: at first the Cabinet Secretary; later a senior member of their personal staff. So UK sherpas always have direct access to their principal. This gives them great authority both with their own bureaucracy and their G8 peers.

Jim Callaghan, who attended three summits, defined how the summit process should work. I often quote his statement to Parliament:
The numbers attending are small and compact. Discussions are businesslike and to the point. We do not make speeches at each other. We talk frankly but also as briefly as we can, and a lot of ground is covered.

His overriding aim was to promote economic growth. He strongly backed the locomotive approach advocated by US President Jimmy Carter, because he knew that economic stimulus in the US, Japan and Germany would also boost growth in Britain. The summit he chaired in London in 1977 did not produce the results he wanted. So he was the first to envisage the cross-issue deal on growth, energy and trade agreed at Bonn a year later.

Margaret Thatcher had to introduce tough and unpopular measures in Britain to bring inflation under control. When she went to the Tokyo summit, a month after taking office, she was delighted to find the other leaders also advocating strict monetary policies to curb inflation. During her time in office she regarded the summit's sustained endorsement of this strategy as a vital boost to her efforts to transform the British economy. She valued the summit so much that she twice broke off election campaigns to attend. Thatcher was also a strong advocate of trade liberalisation, which requires domestic adjustment. As the Soviet bloc crumbled, she wanted the summit to promote working democracies and market economies in East European countries. She favoured inviting Soviet President Gorbachev to the summit she expected to host in 1991.
In the event, John Major had to chair the third London summit. Though it was fairly successful, he was oppressed by its heavy agenda. He thought the summits would work much better if they had simpler procedures, dropped the supporting ministers, and addressed fewer topics. He campaigned persistently for summit reforms along these lines. In fact, little progress was achieved in his time; but he prepared the ground for Tony Blair to transform the summit at Birmingham in 1998.

This was the first G8 summit and the first where leaders met alone, without other ministers. The documents were much shorter, thanks to an agenda focused on three items only: jobs, crime and international finance. The first two items addressed domestic issues and Germany followed this a year later, selecting education and social security. But thereafter the agenda and the documents grew longer and less focused. The summit turned to external issues like development and Blair himself contributed to this. He strongly backed the G8 getting involvement in the revival of Africa and inviting African leaders to the summits.

When Blair hosted his second summit in 2005, he reverted to a short agenda, of just two items: Africa and climate change. He put the focus on the domestic policy of G8 members: aid volumes, trade access and greenhouse gas emissions. There were other changes too. Since the riots at the 2001 Genoa summit and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the summit site had to change. The golfing hotel at Gleneagles, remote from London, met all the new criteria: secure accommodation for the G8 participants close together; media facilities within easy range; and scope for public demonstrations, to satisfy civil society, though at a safe distance. Emerging economic powers now needed to be involved in the summit process, even more than the Africans. Following a French precedent, Blair invited the leaders of Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa to Gleneagles and associated them with the climate change agreements.

Yet this move to engage the emerging powers was not followed up consistently and they soon became disenchanted with what the G8 had to offer. Gordon Brown believed a different institution was needed, with wider membership, and he became a strong advocate of the G20 summit. He thought the G8 summit should continue, but it should take a lower profile, without the extensive apparatus it had acquired.

Failure to integrate the emerging powers was one reason why the G8 was eclipsed by the G20. Another reason was that the G8 had a bad reputation for not keeping its commitments. When David Cameron arrived in 2010, he could see at once that the G8 needed to correct this defect if it was to survive. He gave strong backing to the measures taken at the Muskoka summit to reinforce the accountability of the G8 and to make this process more transparent. At the summits held since then, he has maintained his personal focus on accountability.

In preparing for this year's summit, David Cameron has drawn on the experience of his predecessors. He has chosen to hold the summit at another golfing hotel in the country, remote from London. He has proposed a short agenda focused on three themes: trade, tax and transparency. He has kept the preparations simple, with no G8 ministerial meetings apart from foreign and finance ministers.

Yet the lessons of the past will only take him so far. Cameron faces a problem unknown to the four British leaders that chaired summits before him. In their day, even as recently as Gleneagles, the G8 summit faced no competition. Now it must operate in the shadow of the G20, which has declared itself to be 'the premier forum for our economic cooperation'. David Cameron therefore has to define a distinctive economic role for the G8 summit, which can complement and enrich the G20 without clashing with it. How I think he will approach this is the theme for my remarks later in the day.

Table 1: British Prime Ministers and the G7/G8 Summit, 1975-2013

Prime minister

 Years when at summit

Number attended

Summits chaired

Harold Wilson




Jim Callaghan



London 1977

Margaret Thatcher



London 1984

John Major



London 1991

Tony Blair



Birmingham 1998




Gleneagles 2005

Gordon Brown




David Cameron



Lough Erne 2013

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