Tell me, how did you get so rich?

As chancellor, Gordon Brown put his trust in tycoons and city chiefs. But as wealth disparities grow

The austere Calvinism of the manse and the multi millionaire lifestyle of the nation's corporate princelings are not obvious bedfellows. Yet among Gordon Brown's first actions on taking over as Prime Minister was to anoint, for the first time, a grand-sounding Business Council for Britain.

This was not all. The old Department of Trade and Industry, with its smokestack heritage, was swept into the sea to be replaced by the freshly minted Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the former boss of the CBI, the effervescent Sir Digby Jones, was elevated to the Lords as trade minister (despite his flirtations with the Tories and venomous criticism of Brown's pensions and tax policies).

Brown's critics would argue that all of this cosying up to the business and City elites is no more than window dressing as he seeks to shake the socialist tag and demonstrate a willingness to listen to all, even the private equity bigwigs so despised by the unions and the political classes.

The new Prime Minister is more complex than that. As chancellor, Brown made a fetish of abandoning the traditions of white and black tie for the Mansion House dinner, one of the great set pieces of the financial calendar. Yet he assiduously courted many of the same people, passing the "Loving Cup" up and down the lengthy silver-laden tables, for advice on economic and business problems.

Many of Brown's modern Labour predecessors as prime minister, including Tony Blair, had a penchant for self-made businessmen with less than distinguished reputations and a weakness for cutting corners. Harold Wilson formed a close relationship with the flawed raincoat tycoon Joseph Kagan, James Callaghan with the fringe Welsh banker Sir Julian Hodge and Blair with any number of troublesome money men, from Grand Prix magnate Bernie Ecclestone to the governance-lite steel billionaire Lakshmi Mittal. Blair's relationships were too often built around the need for large tranches of cash to fund his election coffers and an unhealthy fascination with great wealth and celebrity.

The current PM's business associates are largely drawn from the elite of thinking financiers and industrialists on both sides of the Atlantic. He sees businessmen as leaders who know how to get things done, not just as cash points, although on occasion that helps. It is no accident he counts among his gurus the most respected banker in the world, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Bill Gates of Microsoft and, at home, Sir John Rose of Rolls- Royce, whose outspoken views on the nation's lagging engineering skills proved a wake-up call for Brown. The new PM views these bigwigs both as inspirations and a source of great ideas.

It is no secret that in 2001, when Brown sharply lifted resources for the NHS, he searched desperately for a chief executive able to run a vast organisation and transform the culture.

He turned to Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, a lad from the modest council estates of Liverpool who had turned Tesco into Britain's most successful retailer and took a special interest in health because his wife was a medic. Leahy still had much to do on the international front for his employer at that time. But Brown never lost faith in his ability to co-opt Leahy and has added him to his new Business Council.

If the former chancellor wants a job done he automatically turns to the commercial world. His Budget speeches were laced with references to people such as Paul Myners, the former chairman of Marks & Spencer, Sandy Leitch, formerly of Zurich, and his close pal Sir Ronald Cohen, the godfather of private equity in Britain - all of whom have carried out projects on his behalf. Businessmen, with few exceptions such as Lord Young under Margaret Thatcher, rarely make the transition from the boardroom to the cabinet room, with aplomb. So Brown has come up with alternate ways of harnessing their enthusiasm and tapping into their talent pool.

His Business Council for Britain may be something new for a prime minister, but at the Treasury it was part of the furniture. Brown regularly played host to a high-level business advisory group and latterly, as Britain's financial sector picked up momentum - accounting for up to one third of the nation's output - he and his closest associate Ed Balls (now in the cabinet) did the same thing for the City. Balls was so impressed by what he heard that he became almost hyper-active bringing forward new legislation, for instance, to strengthen and protect the UK's City regulator, the Financial Services Authority, in case of an overseas takeover of the London Stock Exchange.

I found myself among those invited along to Brown's high-level business sessions held under strict Chatham House rules. Somehow the chieftains from almost every FTSE-100 company, from bankers to industrialists, found time to respond to the chancellor's embossed invitations and to take part. Brown would lay on all the trappings: a rehearsed order of debate led by himself and fellow cabinet minister Alistair Darling, a cameo appearance from the American treasury secretary Hank Paulson and suffice it to say handsome outside catering with fine wines. Curiously, some of the most powerful figures in business, controlling payrolls encompassing hundreds of thousands of people and corporations that stretched to the far corners of the globe, appeared at times to be reduced to stuttering schoolchildren in the hallowed halls of the Treasury.

The aches and pains of business were laid bare by his guests, from the lack of skills to fears of an implosion at the Doha round of trade talks. Among the serious and enduring issues raised was how the riches of the City were creating a divided nation where the best mathematical brains were drained off to the towers of the Square Mile and Canary Wharf direct from university and how the sheer quantity of wealth created in the City - 4,200 sterling-bonus millionaires in 2006 alone - contributed to a housing market which froze out those working in vital public services.

There is a bravery if not foolhardiness about Brown's adoption of certain business associates. Sir Ronald Cohen may not be in any official post, but he has been the PM's man for all seasons. Founder of Apax - the British private equity powerhouse - he has helped fund Brown's favoured think tank, the Smith Institute, as well as the Portland Trust, the group which paid for much of the work down by Brown advisers Ed Balls and Jon Cunliffe, now at No 10, on using economic muscle to lift the West Bank and Gaza out of poverty.

At home, Brown has asked Cohen to find ways of repatriating the "orphan assets" held by many banks and insurers, money left behind over the generations, and putting them to work on social projects in the inner-city.

The new PM has never wanted to acknowledge that using a tycoon who has accumulated at least £250m of personal wealth and is reported to be non-domiciled for tax purposes, may not play well on the council estates or in the Plc boardroom, where there is huge jealously of such tax privileges.

Perhaps most strange of all was his decision to include Damon Buffini, managing partner of Permira, among his new business advisers. Admittedly, Buffini's personal story is inspirational. A mixed-race child from a single-parent family, he rose to one of the most powerful jobs in the City as head of the private equity arm of the blue-blooded investment bank Schroders.

Pass the parcel

Buffini and Permira have been demonised for their management of the AA, where staff and membership services, including night patrols, were slashed in the name of efficiency.

In the past fortnight, the pass-the-parcel with the AA's assets continued after a merger with Saga in which Buffini and his pals extracted up to £2bn of cash on which they will pay a lower tax rate than the cleaners and gardeners at No 10. He is a choice that looks like political madness.

Certainly, it cocks a snook at the GMB and others who have declared Buffini and his private equity chums public enemy number one, not just for their greed, but for defenestration of pension systems and ruthless job-cutting. Brown's motivations and his slowness in closing down the tax loopholes that have made Mayfair the get-rich capital of the world are hard to fathom. It would be too cynical to think he refuses to confront the tax lacuna for fear of losing party donations.

His reasons are very different. Brown recognises that the greatest force behind Britain's long ten-year run without recession has been the sheer excellence, innovation and openness of British finance. Having created a more liberal tax regime for the super-rich he is unwilling to change it under political pressure and destroy wealth creation. He genuinely believes that there is something to be learned not just from the science of J P Garnier at GlaxoSmithKline but also from the genius of financial innovation. If he can put this to good use in government then so be it.

Brown's value system is so deeply lodged that, unlike some of his Labour predecessors, he has not personally been seduced into thinking he deserves what the captains of industry have, from the private jets to the villas in the Caribbean. But in his embrace of the greed of private equity and mercurial tycoons such as Apprentice star Sir Alan Sugar, he risks undermining his reputation for rectitude.

Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail. Read his new weekly column on business and economics, entitled "Money", starting next week

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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