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Cameron's Achilles' heel

Can the Conservatives handle the economy? The current opposition front bench is the least financiall

Every few months an invitation arrives on my desk to a meet a member of the shadow cabinet at an event organised by the "Conservative City Circle". These events, held in distinctive City locations such as the Mansion House, are designed to introduce movers and shakers in the Square Mile to David Cameron, George Osborne and other senior Conservatives.

The "cocktail parties", as they are engagingly described on the group's website, are a direct descendent of the "prawn cocktail offensive" conducted by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the run-up to the 1997 election. The Blair-Brown approach was designed to demonstrate to the world of finance that Labour had changed. Not only had new Labour taken on the trade unions and faced them down, but a new Labour government would recognise the importance of finance to Britain's economy. The free-market reforms and privatisations of the Thatcher era, which had been so bitterly opposed, would be left intact.

What is curious about the Conservative City Circle's 1950s-style cocktail parties and working groups is that they are needed at all. Historically, the idea of the Tories having to reach out to business and the City would have been risible. Business flocked to the party's doors and few self- respecting FTSE 100 companies would have omitted their hefty donations to the Conservative Party or think tanks with Tory connections.

Conservative frontbenchers didn't need to reach out to the City to be known and trusted, because they were of the City. The old merchant banks, such as N M Rothschild, were hothouses of Conservative talent. Not because they were inherently political, but because a City training in bids and deals, trading, privatisations and the like was considered an excellent education for future politicians. The idea was to establish a career, make enough money if possible and then put those talents to use in the House of Commons and government.

How much things have changed. When Peter Buckley, chairman of the publicly quoted Cayzer family vehicle Caledonian Investments (which owns a big stake in the investment bank Close Brothers), chose earlier this year to attack Labour and support the Tories, he attracted a torrent of criticism from corporate governance mavens.

In a note to shareholders, Buckley wrote: "Shorn of integrity and economic competence, rooster Brown has even less feathers than rooster Blair and lacks the latter's knack of preening himself." He backed up his words with the promise of a £75,000 corporate contribution to the Conservatives.

In fact, one of new Labour's greatest achievements - or betrayals - has been its seduction of business and the City grandees. In the Blair-Brown era, the succession of top business leaders willing to serve as policy advisers was stunning. And it hasn't stopped under Brown and Darling,

It was no coincidence that the rescue of Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS) by Lloyds TSB was partly cooked up a City grandee - Sir Victor Blank, chairman of Lloyds - in a "chance meeting" with the Prime Minister at a reception hosted by Citigroup, one of the world's largest banks. Nor that the top figures at both banks - Blank and Lord Stevenson, chairman of HBOS - are both regarded as business pals of Labour.

Indeed, the former chief executive of Halifax, Sir James Crosby, is the person Labour is counting on to deliver groundbreaking reforms to Britain's creaking mortgage market.

The remarkable fact is that the current Tory front bench, which within 18 months could be assuming the reins of political power at a moment of unprecedented economic turbulence, is among the least City-savvy in a generation. This is why it needs to go out and look for financial and business experience through the "City Circle".

"The problem for the Conservatives is that the front bench is largely made up by a new breed of professional politicians who know very little about anything except PR and politics," remarks Dr Andrew Hilton, director of the independent think-tank, Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation (CSFI).

Hands-on experience

Hilton is scathing about the current Conservative leadership. "The lack of financial experience is a big lacuna. The route now is straight out of Oxford and Cambridge, into PR or political research and, before you know it, they've made it on to the front bench," he says. Asked to name a prominent Tory with the requisite financial experience, he could only suggest David Gauke, MP for South West Hertfordshire, who worked for a leading City law firm, but hardly registers among the top-ranking Conservatives.

Among the new Tory frontbenchers, David Cameron, the son of a stockbroker, is one of the few who can claim that knowledge of the financial world courses through his veins. His hands-on business experience stems from his short period as communications director of the tele v ision franchise Carlton, now part of ITV.

His time at Carlton stored up troubles for Cameron among the notoriously hard-to-please financial press. The BBC's influential former business editor Jeff Randall, now an editor-at-large for the Daily Telegraph, is among his sternest critics. "In my experience," he noted in the paper, "Cameron never gave a straight answer when dissemblance was a plausible alternative."

The shadow chancellor, George Osborne, also has a "trade" background. The quoted family firm Osborne & Little is a favourite among interior designers for its catholic collection of wallpaper and soft furnishing designs. Osborne is thus familiar with the travails of medium-sized firms in a globalised world and, to his credit, he has surrounded himself with informed thinkers such as Matthew Hancock, formerly of the Bank of England.

When the Northern Rock crisis first broke a year ago, Osborne was quick to embrace the idea of an old-fashioned Bank of England-organised rescue, where City banks would offer a lifeboat to a failing bank. This is precisely what has happened with Alliance & Leicester, Bradford & Bingley and, most recently, HBOS. Osborne was also supportive of Mervyn King's proposals for a strengthened deposit insurance scheme at a time when Labour has dithered and delayed.

But there is no hiding the fact that, unlike previous Tory shadow and real chancellors, his experience and knowledge of finance is negligible. Oliver Letwin, shadow chancellor under Mich ael Howard, may have lacked political gravitas, but he came with the stamp of N M Rothschild. Ken Clarke was a heavyweight political operator with commercial experience gained as a lawyer, and John Major had climbed through the ranks at Standard Chartered, one of the nation's most successful banking concerns. Even Norman Lam ont could boast a career at N M Rothschild from 1968 to 1979.

As PM, Margaret Thatcher was surrounded with people with serious City and business experience. Peter Walker was a junior partner in the asset-stripping bank Slater Walker, William Waldegrave was a Dres dner Kleinwort Benson veteran, Michael Heseltine an entrepreneur who founded one of the UK's most successful private companies, Hay- market Publishing, and so on. Thatcher also had her late husband Denis, a former senior executive of his family business Burmah Oil (since swallowed up by BP), to whisper in her ear.

David Davis, a senior executive at Tate & Lyle, was one of the few business heavyweights in Cameron's shadow cabinet, but he now adorns the back benches after his decision to seek re-election on an erosion of freedoms platform. The shadow trade secretary Alan Duncan boasts a period as an "oil trader" on his CV. But one would been hard-pressed to judge, from his performance on the BBC's Question Time a week ago, what his understanding is of the scale of the financial crisis facing Britain.

Among the leading City figures now at Cameron's elbow is Michael Spencer, the extrovert chief executive of Icap, an electronic broker and City derivatives trading firm which has been suggested as a potential merger partner for the London Stock Exchange. As treasurer for the Tories, Spencer has been in perpetual motion in recent times.

When I visited him at his offices in the months after the credit crunch hit, he was entertaining an exclusive group of high-street bank chairmen whom he was seeking to persuade of the wisdom of supporting Cameron and his team. His success in the City, in one of the most volatile periods of recent times, has won him credibility among his fellow financiers. He is also one of the City's most accomplished philanthropists, with a particular devotion to Africa. But because of recent personal problems, it is unlikely that he will play a very prominent role at conference.

At a time of unprecedented financial turmoil, almost certainly the greatest banking crisis since the Great Depression, Tory expertise in the increasingly complex and globalised world of finance seems thin on the ground. Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat economic spokesman, demonstrated throughout the current crisis that it is possible constructively to oppose and come up with credible ideas without talking the economy down. But Cable has hands-on knowledge of business from his period as chief economist of Shell.

The Conservatives' failure to say anything significant about the current catastrophe is unsurprising, when it falls so far outside the comfort zone of their present front bench.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain