Relax: Thanks to Goldman Sachs and other ‘donors’, this year’s conference will be cost-neutral for Hertfordshire – despite the construction of the Great Wall of Watford
Wednesday 5 June 2013 09.23 EDT
Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, is expected at Bilderberg 2013. Photograph: Michel Euler/AP
The auditorium grew hushed as a senior Watford borough councillor took to his feet. The police liaison team looked nervous. They had made their presentation and laid out their plans for this "unique event": the anti-terrorism zones, the identity checks, the restriction on vehicles stopping in the vicinity of this "important international conference". But now it was the turn of the people of Watford to speak.
What would they make of this international three-day policy summit, with its heavyweight delegate list bulging with billionaire financiers, party leaders and media moguls, protected by the biggest security operation Watford has ever seen?
"What this whole thing boils down to," boomed the councillor, "is this: are you, or are you not, setting a precedent for vehicles parking on the verge of the Old Hempstead Road?"
Thus began an hour-long (hour-and-a-half-long?) discussion about whether or not cars and press vehicles should be allowed to park on a strip of grass running parallel to the A41, just opposite the Grove hotel. It was like a weird, dystopian episode of Keeping Up Appearances. Never mind that our ministers are meeting in secret with the heads of Shell, BP, Google and Amazon – what about the verge!
There was an audible gasp when, under intense questioning, Chief Inspector Rhodes was forced to admit, citing a "bylaw", that the no-parking signs on the verge were actually fraudulent: no such law existed.. One lady, almost beside herself, gestured to the audience. "There are media here! This story is going to get out!" The verge would never be the same again, thanks to Bilderberg.
The audience was an odd mix. Half were residents from around the venue worried about the possibility of tyre-damage to a strip of lawn; the other half were journalists from around the world worried about the geopolitical implications of a conference at which BAE, Stratfor and General Petraeus will be discussing "Africa’s challenges".
Both halves were worried about the funding for the gigantic security operation. The police assured sceptical residents that the conference would be "cost-neutral" for Hertfordshire, thanks in part to a "donation" from the conference organisers. This "donation" will have come, in part at least, from the Bilderberg Association, a registered UK charity that takes "donations" from BP and Goldman Sachs.
So, in a sense, the Herts police are doing charity work for Goldman Sachs. Which must be a comfort for the executives of Goldman Sachs attending the conference: the vice-chairman, a director and the chairman of Goldman Sachs International. They’ve got their charity team out patrolling, keeping the lenses at bay.
At one point in the meeting, during a tense exchange about contingency plans for dog-walkers, Rhodes let slip that Operation Discuss (the codename for the Bilderberg security operation) had been up and running for 18 months. Residents and journalists shared an intake of breath. "Eighteen months?" The reason for all the secrecy? "Terrorism".
The Great Wall of Watford
After 59 years of Bilderbgerg guests scuttling about in the shadows, ducking lenses and dodging the news, that’s the rationale we’re given? The same rationale, presumably, is behind the Great Wall of Watford, a concrete-and-wire security fence encircling the hotel. As ugly as it is unnecessary, it looks like the kind of thing you throw yourself against in a stalag before being machine-gunned from a watchtower. Appropriately fascistic, you might say, if you regard fascism as "the merger of corporate and government power", as Mussolini put it.
The same threat of "terrorism" was used to justify the no-pedestrian, no-stopping zones near the venue. The police laid out their logic: they had "no specific intelligence" regarding a terror threat. However, in recent incidents, such as Boston and Woolwich, there had been no intelligence prior to the attack. Therefore the lack of any threat of a terror attack fitted exactly the profile of a terror attack. The lack of a threat was a threat. Welcome to 1984.
Rhodes admitted that the anti-terror zones were flexible, and that residents would be allowed to pass through to their homes. But their value for security, he said, was that if people gathered in these zones who did not live locally, "they can easily be moved on" – not because they are terrorists but simply because they are gathering. That’s the great thing about the threat of terrorism: it’s so infinitely applicable.
That said, the police liaison team have been amazing, and this year has marked a turning point for Bilderberg. Under pressure from journalists, and thanks in large part to the Herts constabulary liaison team, a press zone has been set aside within the hotel grounds. The pressure was kept up, and it was met with the early release of the delegate list, rushed out by the conference organisers with such speed that they forgot to change the date at the top of the web page from 2009 to 2013. But the biggest news of all was at the foot of the page. Two words: media contact.
Welcome, Bilderberg, to the world. Suddenly, miraculously, we had entered a brave new world of normality: an international policy summit attended by the head of the IMF, the president (and a vice-president) of the European commission, the prime minister of Holland, a dozen other ministers, any number of transnational CEOs and bank bosses, the chairmen of the Swiss and Dutch national banks, and our own chancellor of the exchequer, was entering into a normal working relationship with the press. This was amazing! This was historic!
And then, a few hours later, the media contact email address simply vanished from the website. Like a nervous faun, Bilderberg had nosed its way out of a hedge, sniffed the air, sensed danger, and jittered back into a thicket. Still, it was a courageous first step, and certainly not the last. There are rumours that a few of the delegates are fed up (understandably) with all the secrecy, and want to shift towards a more transparent way of doing business. To these delegates, we say: keep pushing. Between us, we can get there.
Before the media contact was snatched away, I did manage a friendly email exchange, and my questions were promptly answered by a spokesman for the conference. The gist of the answers was this: none of the delegates pay to attend; no delegates join by phone or satellite; the conference programme "never includes any entertainment or performances"; and, as for the food, it’s "buffet only, all days, all meals".
I’m slightly sad about the buffet. I was kind of hoping for roast swan wrapped in gold leaf and stuffed with songbirds. As, I’m sure, was Ken Clarke.
• Charlie Skelton is the script editor of 10 O’Clock Live, a writer on Have I Got News for You and a fan of Bilderberg since 2009. He’ll be tweeting from Bilderberg Watford from @deYook