It’s a networking event in one of London’s great glass towers a few days before the election. The room is filled mostly with company directors, hedge funders, bankers and lawyers. Would they vote Labour? “An unmitigated disaster. You can’t be serious? Have you any idea what would happen? Half the clients of people in this room would be off, gone – anyone who can.”
The editor of Spears wealth management magazine has kindly brought me with him to breathe in the thin air of the upper stratosphere. In the election I have travelled everywhere from Glasgow to the Isle of Wight, Bristol to Ely, Somerset to Gateshead, Chipping Norton to Wakefield, talking to people of all politics and none. But these are the invisibles, the echelons of money and power not seen on Newsnight or Question Time, who never apologise, never explain.
Their world is the beating heart of the modern Tory party, its financial backers, its influencers who whisper to David Cameron’s people in private gatherings, at country suppers and in the secret salons of Westminster restaurants; it’s the world where Lord Chadlington, lobbying supremo, chats over the stone wall between his estate and Cameron’s in Witney. Murmuring what? We never know. Cameras pry into benefits street but none invades this private life of the nation.
I had forgotten that look of baffled incredulity. No one they meet votes Labour. “You mean just as we are repairing the frightful damage done by Labour, you want to put them back in? Good God!” “What, piss it all up the wall again? Pardon my French – but you want all those people back on welfare?” “I don’t think you realise what this government’s done to get the country back on its feet – and you want to give it back to the people who bankrupted us?”
The one non-Tory I met was an older banker from an ancient firm: “I’m a Christian. I’m appalled at migrants being left to drown in the Mediterranean.” Those nearby looked at him politely as an eccentric.
A venture capitalist investing in start-ups shook his head: “The non-doms [nondomiciled, referring to wealthy people who are able to live and work in Britain without paying all their tax there], they’ll go. Mansion tax, tax rates at 50%? Labour want to drive out wealth creators, don’t they?”
Off like a flock of migratory birds
Would he go? Well no, but all the mobile global high-net-worths would be off like a flock of migratory birds. Look, the top London property market was already frozen, waiting for Thursday’s election.
“You do realise,” said a woman who serves on several boards, “it’s us middle classes who are the motor of the economy? Government has nothing if we don’t generate wealth for them to spend – spending it on people who create nothing.”
“Government wastes and wastes,” said a boardroom man. “Philanthropy does it so much better. Tax us less; we’ll see that money well spent.”
We all live in our own silos. To understand the Cameron world, hear this drumbeat in their ears, their native noise. Forget the phoney “march of the makers”, the hard hats and high-visibility jackets of electioneering: when they leave politics, Tories return to this natural habitat.
English Conservatism’s riptide undercurrents break the surface in the daily front-page vilification of Labour. The nation’s loudspeakers are an 85% right-wing press, owned by non-British taxpayers.
Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, even the Financial Times (FT) with its City clientele called for a Conservative win. Despite editorials regularly lambasting Cameron’s Euroscepticism, despite chief commentator Martin Wolf’s devastating critiques of austerianism, it reverted to its market. Its election editorial, The compelling case for continuity, was the authentic voice of unreasoning Conservatism, where being Tory is as natural as the English weather and Labour is always the interloping upsetter of apple carts.
Yet Cameron has run the most radical government of our lifetime – cutting the state, sweeping away support for the weak, denuding local government, gifting millions to their folk to set up free schools, selling the National Health Service (NHS) to private firms, privatising the Royal Mail, tripling fees to make universities in effect private, and replacing a million lost public jobs with pre-unionised lump labour.
Toryism the norm, everything else insurgent
All this state-stripping turmoil is disguised as sober “continuity” Conservatism. Broadcasters in their questioning were also swayed by this sense that Toryism was the norm and everything else insurgent.
Labour’s aim was to restore the post-war, pre-Thatcher consensus – an adequate welfare state, more house building, decent work, a robust NHS and taxing the rich more fairly. That made economic as well as social sense: on the same page as that FT leader, Wolf pointed out how inequality has risen since the late 1970s, calling Cameron’s regressive taxes “worrying”.
The theme of the Davos World Economic Forum was the danger of growing inequality, and the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, says inequality is the greatest threat to growth. Yet, said the FT leader, “the fundamental weakness in Labour’s plans” is that “Mr Miliband is preoccupied with inequality”. He’s not alone.
When the chips are down, antagonism to taxing the rich comes before the future of Britain.
Greed, selfishness, unimpeded inheritance, privilege cemented down the generations, cutting benefits while giving more to the wealthy – those are the Conservative passions. The FT praised Cameron for having the “political courage” to “shrink the state”, but look how their How to Spend It magazine in this same election week suggests squandering all that wealth.
Forget public services when you can spend £1 250 on a bottle of A Goodnight Kiss perfume or £10 100 on a tulle shirt-dress. Has the £10 540 a person “ultimate Nepal” package by helicopter, plus private audience with the king, been disrupted at all by the earthquake?
Try taking City denizens to food banks and nothing changes their mind. “Let them eat lentils; why don’t they retrain; where’s their get-up-and-go?”
Most of us are entrenched. I could no more vote Tory than they could back Labour. I think them boorishly selfish, they think me delusionally ignorant of their “real world”. The country is profoundly split between a tribe of revolutionary state-breakers and preservers of the public realm.
A hung result doesn’t make Britain undecided, but divided by a chasm between the reds and the blues. – © Guardian News & Media 2015