David Cameron: 'G8 summit is a chance to recover national self-confidence'

Exclusive: reforming creaking tax system and Syria will be prime minister's big targets for meeting in Northern Ireland

There was a perception that David Cameron is not a natural "global governance" man, and finds international summitry tiresome – unlike, for instance, Gordon Brown who relished it. But the PM, before his critical chairmanship of the G8 summit next week in Northern Ireland, dispels the impression.

Sitting beneath a portrait of Lady Thatcher in Downing Street, he explains: "International gatherings are worthwhile, if they are done in the right way. The trouble is too many of them are about long communiques with endless textual arguments.

"I once asked where these communiques go after we have agreed them, like in the EU. Is there an elephant's graveyard of communiques or a room – remember like that advert for Carlsberg with the complaints department in which no-one worked in – you think that must be where they go."

Cameron's argument is that the G8 must "get back to a fireside chat" in which leaders sit together "without a lot of advisers and without a lot of communiques, addressing problems of the world that they want to do something about".

And there are no shortage of international problems – a gruesome Syrian civil war, a multibillion dollar US-EU trade deal and a creaking international tax system that allows both crooks and corporations to hide their profits, and deplete government treasuries across the globe. The question is whether the leaders can do something about all this.

Cameron explains that he has been thinking deeply for months about how he hopes to shape a distinctive British agenda: "What is exciting about this G8 is that it is a good opportunity for British leadership and to recover some of our national self-confidence".

"It's your choice what you focus on. I spent a lot of time [with] experts like Paul Collier [the development economist] and John Githongo [the Kenyan anti-corruption expert], thinking 'right this is Britain's opportunity'.

"We did a great job at Gleneagles in 2005 – raising the importance of aid and development, so what is the next stage in this vital work?"

Cameron's line is that this is the next stage, following on logically from Gleneagles: "The more I have looked into it, the more I see unless you take up tax and transparency agenda you will not get the sort of development and change you want to see. It is a great agenda that has a transformative potential."

He accepts the summit in Fermanagh itself will be far from the final word, but argues he already has made some big breakthroughs. "The EU for the first time has agreed proper tax exchange and information, something that was held up by Austria and Luxembourg for year after year. The Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories – often Britain has been criticised for not doing enough [but] we have real action and real progress on that front. So before even the G8 leaders arrive in Northern Ireland, we have got really big steps forward on tax and transparency".

Cameron is pinning his hopes for real action from the UK's notorious tax havens on a pre-G8 summit mini-summit today with the sometimes highly prickly, and unpredictable heads of the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories – the likes of Jersey, Guernsey, Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands. As if to remind the world that these havens are a British responsibility, their flags fluttered in Parliament Square on Friday, each festooned with a union flag.

Cameron insists their leaders, such as Craig Cannonier, the Bermudan prime minister are responding to the public outcry. "They are now agreeing to exchange of tax information, not just on request, but on what matters – automatic exchange of information".

He explains automatic exchange of information between tax authorities on the bank accounts within their jurisdiction is critical. He said: "I have had the tax experts in and said to them: 'come on, tell me what really matters … which bit of this agenda will make a difference?' and they said 'automatic exchange is vital because you do not know what you have not got. When you have got automatic exchange, you can see what information you are missing'."

But he wants to push the agenda further, and says the UK will show a lead. He argues that it is necessary to know more about who owns which offshore company – the beneficial owner – because that is how a lot of people and a lot of companies avoid tax, using secretive companies in secretive locations. And so he promises: "Every one of the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories are going to have an action plan on beneficial ownership".

And in an announcement likely to be welcomed by campaign groups he says: "Here in the UK we are going to have a register of beneficial ownership, and we are going to consult on whether it should be public or not. I know in the end everyone would like total transparency and total publicity about everything, and I have a huge amount of sympathy for that. But the most important thing is the tax authorities have got to have access to this information so a central registry of beneficial ownership in the UK is a real step forward and we are leading by example."

Campaigners want these registries that reveal the identity of shell companies to be available to the public, and not just worldwide tax authorities. But it may not be quite so simple.

Cameron has a four stage diplomatic process: "Step one – everyone admits there is a problem. Step two – everyone agrees to action plans for beneficial ownership. Step three – Britain takes the lead to say our answer is a register of beneficial ownership. Step four would be everyone doing that and then making it public." He says that is where he would like to end up, but adds he would not "disadvantage Britain" by doing something other countries are not prepared to do.

He explains why the issue of real, beneficial ownership is so critical. "I have been hugely influenced by the work of Paul Collier. I have been a follower of his for many years. What he writes about this issue is hugely powerful. Oil exports from Nigeria are many times the aid flows that go to many African countries. The extractive industry payments to developing countries dwarf the amount of aid they receive. We have got to make sure these minerals are a blessing and not a curse. Obviously you need honest government in those countries, but in the west we have a role to play. If you can still have shady secretive companies, we are simply not playing our part."

He admits that recent disclosures in the Guardian about the United States's previously secret Prism programme that claims to collect a wide range of personal information directly from US internet giants have prompted him to ask "a whole series of questions, to double check on our processes and procedures and legal frameworks and the work of the intelligence and security committee".

Documents suggested that GCHQ had access to the system, but having taken up the subject with William Hague, the foreign secretary, Cameron concludes that he is "very satisfied" with the statement he made to the Commons on Monday. "I think the idea that somehow our intelligence agencies have been working with other intelligence agencies to find a way round domestic controls is wrong".

That subject may not be high up the PM's G8 agenda, but Cameron for many months also seen the G8 as the natural forum for a fireside discussion on Syria. He deliberately asked Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to London on Sunday, even if he could not have predicted until a few days ago that Washington, on the eve of the summit, would finally declare the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons, and that this justified arming the rebels.

He explains: "I think what the Americans have done is give some added granularity by talking about the number of people who might have died, by talking about how the fact that we think chemical weapons have been used on a number of occasions. I welcome this candid assessment by the Americans. I think it, rightly, puts back at centre stage the question, the very difficult question, to answer but nonetheless one we have got to address: what are we going to do about the fact that in our world today there is a dictatorial and brutal leader who is using chemical weapons under our noses against his own people?"

So what will Britain do about that? "What has been important – and we need more urgent work on – is co-ordinating, with the Americans, the French and other allies, the training, assistance, advice and shaping of the opposition. Those who say there are elements of the Syrian opposition that are extremist and that we should have nothing to do with them are completely right. Where I take issue is that if we don't do anything to help and shape the moderate elements of the opposition, then the extreme elements will grow," he says.

He is acutely aware of the profound lack of trust across the world about British intelligence identifying Middle East dictators with weapons of mass destruction. Rejecting Russian suggestions that the evidence is fabricated, he says that he has been "wanting to take great care because of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction". He cites parliament's joint intelligence committee as a reason why "prime ministers can't just get up and say what they like about this issue. I really have tried to reveal information in a correct way".

But he is very frank about what he and the Americans are asserting Syria's president Assad has sanctioned. "It does constitute a war crime. As the statement from America has put it, it crosses a red line as defined by all sorts of international agreements over many decades. All this killing and butchering is completely unacceptable. It is happening on our watch and we need to take more action to stop it. But there is something particularly gruesome and ghastly about the use of chemical weapons. It does fly in the face of so many treaties, agreements, norms that have been signed over the years".

The question is whether the announcement will necessarily provoke Putin to step up his supply of arms to Assad. Cameron says he will discuss this with the Russian president tomorrow. He said: "The Russians have not at any stage, as far as I can see, held back from their relationship with Syria over the years and have supplied them with a lot of weapons.

"So this idea that somehow if we just backed off, didn't help the opposition, shut up about this issue, looked the other way that somehow therefore Russia would stop supplying Syria with arms – I think that is very naive. I think what is required – I spent a lot of time talking to President Putin about this at Sochi – I think the Russians do see the case for a peace conference, do see the case for a transitional government, do see the case for making progress".

He is also adamant that the Syrian opposition, despite its divisions and jihadist elements, is superior to keeping Assad. "It is all very well complaining about the opposition. It is easy to do and everybody does, but if you complain about the opposition and then do nothing to help those elements of the opposition that could play a constructive role, it is only going to get worse."

The prime minister's argument is that "there has been not enough engagement by the west. You have seen that the bad people have got the weapons and the power and the strength. By contrast the opposition – the al-Nusra front – haven't got their assistance and their help from Britain or France or America. So if we worry about the opposition, which we should, the answer is engagement, rather than disengagement" .

So the next four days will be pivotal for Cameron, not just in terms of what he achieves practically, but how his leadership qualities come to be viewed both in Britain and internationally. In a moment of reflection, he remarks: "You only get to chair the G8 once …" before he pauses, considers and adds mischievously "… in every eight years. So I am looking forward to my next one."


Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt

The GuardianTramp

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