NOT much of my life has been spent feeling sorry for the Queen. But the news footage of the state banquet for Chinese president Xi Jinping might just have changed that.
I realise this is just another day at the gilt-edged office for her Majesty. She’s lived through an eternity of these be-glittered occasions, chomping on venison and not-so-humble pie.
Sadly, my invitation seems to have been lost in the post. Either that or it’s down all those years spent grumbling about the royals. Sometimes we people of pointless principle have it coming.
So like the rest of us, I can only go on the television footage. As glimpsed on the news, the banquet looked glittery but empty, magnificent but ridiculous, a fine flourish of crawling dressed up as national pageantry.
Views of this state visit will be determined by perspective. The protestors who attempted to chant their objections in the Mall will have a different view from the mass of official Chinese supporters supplied with matching T-shirts and posters, seemingly orchestrated to drown out any chorus of dissent. China doesn’t leave these things to chance.
If you are a chancellor wanting China to stump up for a nuclear power station or two, you will think that the visit is a very good thing, and worth any amount of white-tie grovelling and turbot munching.
If you are a steel worker in Scunthorpe and Scotland, it might well stick in your gullet that on the day you learn you are to lose your job, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are fawning all over the president of the country said to have caused the collapse in world steel prices.
And if you are the Queen, you might wonder at the disparity in gifts when, in return to a hand-tooled edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, you receive two CDs of music by the Chinese president’s wife. I guess that’s just a cultural thing, and it is fair to point out that Peng Liyuan is a celebrated folk singer – celebrated in her own right, and no doubt as a patriotic duty too.
What this state visit does is confirm the inexorable rise of China. Never mind a wobble or two on the Chinese stock market, never mind what the west sees as human rights abuses, China’s might isn’t about to diminish. Rather the opposite.
The pragmatic response to this if you are George Osborne is to bury any doubt and do everything necessary to sweet talk and appease China. If that sticks in the throat, and surely it should, the Osborne response would be to say that’s the world we live in, so you might as well jump to front of the queue.
This is all down to a word I have never felt comfortable using: geopolitics. Perhaps the definition was a little hazy in my mind. The Cambridge online dictionary offers: “The study of the way a country’s size, position, etc. influence its power and its relationships with other countries.”
Well this state visit is certainly all about size, power and influence. It’s hard not to see Britain as a minnow swimming alongside a giant pike when it comes to China.
So what does China get out of all this (apart from hand-tooled Shakespeare)? Respect and kudos, propaganda beyond price at home and abroad and a chance to put a Chinese perspective on matters. In his 11-minute speech to Parliament, Xi gave a nod to the “mother of parliaments”, while also stressing that “in China, the concept of putting people first and following the rule of law emerged in ancient times”.
The protestors on the streets might have had something to say about that, but they were mostly drowned out by the Chinese state-sponsored cheerleaders.
Maybe cosying up to the second most powerful country in the world is just what has to be done. But it is possible still to worry about just how powerful our new best friend might be.
As to steel, the business secretary Sajid Javid said in an emergency debate called by Labour that: “No government can change the price of steel in the global market.” Except that some people argue that’s just what China did by dumping cheap steel on the market.
Javid wasn’t having any of that, but then he is a diehard Thatcherite. And you don’t win many arguments with them.