OUTLOOK : British miss their place at the Kazakh dinner

By any standards this was a bizarre dinner party. The hosts were the President, finance and energy ministers of Kazakhstan, the venue a slightly down-at-heel three-star hotel in the Swiss ski resort of Davos. The dinner was part of the World Econo mic Forum, Europe's primary "networking" conference for business, political and academic leaders.

On the face of it, Kazakhstan is a country that would hold little if any interest to Western businessmen. In the oil and gas industry, however, many see it as the next Eldorado, a country with potential oil wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. According to some estimates, Kazakhstan could be accounting for around 10 per cent of Opec oil and gas production by the second decade of the next century.

There were lots of Americans at this dinner, including the president of Chevron, plenty of Germans, Frenchmen and Swiss, even a smattering of Turks and Australians, but no reprentatives from British business. Both British Petroleum and British Gas have made much of their oil and gas finds in Kazakhstan and both are paying heavily for their foothold there. It cannot be often that the country's top ministers are in Europe. However well BP and British Gas know the President of Kazakhstan - probably not that well, one suspects - they might at least have sent a representative. This was a rare opportunity to fly the flag, oil the wheels and consolidate their position with the new regime.

The World Economic Forum, held every year about this time, now has an established place on the merry-go-round of international events for the world's business, banking and political elite. Many would argue that its value has declined enormously since itsheyday as an exclusive and largely private event. "Too many journalists, another media circus", was an oft-muttered criticism. After a few days, others complained of unrelenting and badly organised tedium, bad value for the thousands of pounds each member has to stump up. Highly paid executives found themselves having to queue for events and the electronic mail system went down. There was not, in any case, enough space on the electronic page to "network" quite as vigorously as anyone would like. At theevening "brainstorming" sessions, it proved difficult to gain access to the "right" people. Many of the speeches were charismatic, thought-provoking and fascinating, but with a few minor exceptions there were no policy initiatives and nothing stunninglynew was said.

Whatever the level of complaint, however, there is no doubt that this is a unique event, unmatched by anything else on the international conference circuit. Access to the world's political and business elite is virtually unparalleled. The event may have lost some of its glitter and mystique, but behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms the deals and contact-making still flow. Even if business is not conducted there on the spot, membership of the World Economic Forum makes it that much easier to pick upthe phone later on.

If there was to be benefit to be extracted from the event, the Americans and Continentals were determined to flog it for all it was worth. And the British?

There were some, including Sir Michael Perry, chairman of Unilever. David Montgomery, chief executive of Mirror Group, was there. So was Sir Bob Reid, chairman of British Rail. There were also lots of British investment bankers and accountants, ploughingthe corridors on the off-chance of picking up developing world privatisation work. But on the whole, British industrialists were notable by their absence.

It is easy to read too much into such a no-show. It may be right that the serious people no longer go to Davos. But if so, you have to wonder what industrialists like Alex Trotman, president of the Ford Motor Company, Ferdinand Piech, chairman of Volkswagen, and Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, were doing there. Why too did Roman Herzog, President of Germany, Shimon Perez, Israel's foreign affairs minister, Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, and Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, bother to show their faces?

To read some of the British press, you might have thought that M. Santer's reasons for attending were solely to warm up the Eurosceptic debate in Britain. That at least was the tone of much of the British reporting of a speech in which he referred to theneed to push ahead with preparations for monetary union. As luck would have it, the Cabinet's most prominent Eurosceptic was actually on hand, a fish out of water if ever there was one, to dress up the story with a quote or two.

It was, however, Mr Portillo, not M. Santer, who was out of tune with the spirit of the conference. The Eurosceptic debate could hardly have seemed more irrelevant and Britain's poor showing more telling at a conference whose dominent themes were the globalisation of markets, business, cultures, products and institutions. At a time when many in Britain can think only of defending its national institutions, others have moved on and are already busy constructing the international structures and organisations necessary to foster and regulate the process of globalisation.

It was possible to see this conference as symptomatic of the cultural change that still needs to take place in British business. Despite all the changes in outlook and working practices of the last 15 years, the freeing of the labour market, the enormousstrides in technology, management and efficiency, some of which outstrip our Continental peers, much of British business remains firmly entrenched in the Dark Ages, an island apart, inward-looking and out of tune with the times.

Many would regard this as unfair comment and certainly there are some notable exceptions to the generalisation. Some of British business is ahead of the game in adapting to the challenges of the global marketplace - Glaxo with its record-breaking bid forWellcome, British Airways and British Telecom with their string of international alliances, the City, that great powerhouse of free market capitalism where global trading is already a reality. You could also argue that much in the Continental approach to national integration is little more than oldfashioned mercantalism dressed up in new form - more anti-global in its approach than Mr Portillo. It is, after all, raw Anglo-Saxon free market capitalism, communication and cost-cutting that is driving the process, not European-style integration.

There was, none the less, among the American, Japanese and Continental businessmen who stalked the labyrinthine halls of the Davos conference centre, a sense of vision and purpose, an openness to new ideas, structures and ways that can be sadly lacking in British business. Who in Britain would think of structuring a programme for business around such things as state-of-the-art thinking on the origins of the universe as well as more conventional sessions on wage bargaining and marketing?

Perhaps at British Petroleum, a company that was "global" before the desciption was invented in its modern sense, this is all familiar stuff. The President of Kazakhstan would have liked to see the company at his dinner, none the less.