The BBC's Super-Rich and Us. Photo: BBC/Fresh One Productions
Show Hide image

Our masochistic fascination with the super-rich must end now

The vast majority of us spend our lives worrying about money. If you don't, shut up.

For a couple of years, I worked the odd shift on a luxury magazine. It was (and still is) the Argos catalogue of the One Per Cent, with features on yachting in the turquoisest parts of the Caribbean, wine tasting in the Frenchest parts of France and watches with price tags that would make a Russian oligarch choke on his breakfast caviar. And I was its occasional stand-in fact checker. For the most part, this meant looking at prices of things. Expensive things.

I remember phoning the press office for a posh jeweller to check that a particular diamond necklace was indeed £350,000. There’s something so embarrassing about discussing that sort of figure over the phone. Both me and the affable PR girl – Imogen, or Francesca, or Verity – clearly knew it was stupid. I wanted to say something. I wanted to say, “So, we have the necklace down as three hundred and fifty fucking thousand pounds. Is that the correct monumentally insane price?

I didn’t though, because Imogen/Francesca/Verity was nice. So I just sat, stewing in adolescently communist thoughts.

“Whoever buys this necklace,” I thought, “fuck you and your things”.

And things, it seems, have never been so poignant. TV screens are plastered with Bentleys and jizzing bottles of Dom Perignon, following the trend for documentaries and reality shows about the super-rich. We can’t get enough of these people. The BBC’s Posh People: Inside Tatler gave us a porny peep at old money, while more recent two-part documentary The Super-Rich and Us focuses more on the newer sort. Both kinds suck in their own ways. And in a world where the 85 richest people are as wealthy as the poorest three billion, a £350,000 necklace is a sign of things gone arse up and tits backwards. It’s trite, I know. But sometimes trite things need to be repeated again and again and again, until the right people start listening.

It’s about time we truly made pariahs out of billionaires. At least to the point at which we scrub them the hell off our TV screens. Fair enough, The Super-Rich and Us, the first episode of which aired last week, is actually a look into how the recession has widened the gap between rich and poor. It’s not meant to be aspirational, but it might as well be. It features interviews with billionaires doing some pretty billionaire-ish stuff. No one wants to see that. Frankly, I’d rather look at a haemorrhoid, or Nigel Farage, or even Nigel Farage’s haemorrhoid, than another Chelsea bastard shoving his utterly carefree lifestyle down the population’s collective cake hole. Visibly rich people on our screens are just the fattest dumplings in a stew of televisual depressingness. “Everything you love to eat is killing you. No, really and truly killing the fuck out of you,” says TV, “and if carbs don’t kill you, terrorists will. And if they don’t, we’re more than due a colossal natural disaster. And, by the way, here’s diarrhoea in a sharp suit driving its Lamborghini to the nearest diamond shop.”

This constant showcasing of freakish wealth almost wouldn’t be so offensive if it weren’t happening alongside programmes like last year’s Benefits Street. While making monsters of the working class, we’re, OK, not so much lauding the super-rich, but giving them enough exposure to show off their things until they run out of things to show us. Flashiness used to be a matter of bad taste and nothing else. Now though, it’s about so much more than aesthetics. When society has never been less equal, flaunting what you have (no matter how ugly and useless it seems to the rest of the world) is, above all, profoundly insensitive.

We’ve had our fun judging the super-rich for their jewel-encrusted bidets, but it’s about time, now, we stop giving them a platform. Effectively, they’re only making us more miserable. Just look at the Rich Kids of Instagram Tumblr. Boy, do we love to hate these insecure teenagers who post pictures of themselves pouring champagne over cornflakes, amongst other costly capers. They say we’re just jealous, and we are. Not of their god-awful things, but of their luck.  It’s one thing to have earned (ethically or not) enough money to swim in, it’s quite another just to happen to be the offspring of someone who did. The vast majority of us spend a decent chunk of our lives worrying about money. If you’re not one of us, kindly shut up about it.

Our masochistic fascination with the super-rich needs to end right now. While we’re waiting for that to happen, if you’re lucky enough to be flying somewhere, just make sure you fart when you’re walking through business class. For humanity’s sake.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide