As the champagne corks pop . . .

Yachtgate leaves voters with the uncomfortable feeling that the super-rich own our politicians.

At times like this, I think of Stafford Cripps. A vegetarian and teetotaller, who reputedly lunched exclusively on carrots, Cripps was Labour chancellor during the postwar austerity years. Even after he devalued the pound, the public gave him a positive approval rating of 11 per cent. Before that, despite strict rationing and income tax at nine shillings (45p), it was 33 per cent. Cripps came from a wealthy background but, to look at him, you wouldn’t have known it. For most of his time in office, he was very thin and very ill, and he died shortly after stepping down. He was described – by a diplomat, not a Labour colleague – as “the nearest thing to a saint I have ever met”.

How unlike our own dear contemporary politicians, for some of whom life seems to be one champagne reception after another, and many of whom so visibly enjoy the high life. Corfu isn’t at all exotic, or even particularly fashionable. But there’s one almost ludicrously beautiful enclave on the north-eastern coast which is much favoured by the people with the kind of cut-glass accent you normally find in Surrey and Bucks.

It was there, as most of us now know, that an extraordinary political drama unfolded this summer, involving a luxury villa, a yacht, an expensive restaurant and lots of parties and dinners. With British businesses going bust by the day, thousands being evicted from their homes and pensioners facing winter with the heating turned down, this does not sound to me like the sort of thing that will enhance the country’s admiration for its rulers.

But I’m old Labour. As, I suppose, was Cripps.

Rothschild thought it jolly bad form to leak juicy gossip exchanged between rich folk

It will perhaps be called Corfugate or Yachtgate. Here’s what we know. The villa belongs to the Rothschild family who bought the land before the Second World War along with a section of the Albanian coast opposite so as not to spoil their view. The yacht belongs to Russia’s richest man, Oleg Deripaska, who made his fortune in aluminium and also owns Leyland Daf. The restaurant is the Agni Taverna, allegedly Corfu’s best, which people like to say can only be reached by boat, though it is easily accessible by road or, for that matter, foot. Some of the partying and dining was on the yacht, some at the villa, with Nat Rothschild playing host. He will become Baron Rothschild when the present one dies and, as well as being heir to the family fortune, has his own hedge fund. He is said to spend more time sleeping in his private jet than in his five houses. The guests included Peter Mandelson, the former EU trade commissioner now restored to the cabinet as Business Secretary; George Osborne, the shadow chancellor; Andrew Feldman, the Tories’ chief fundraiser and an old Oxford friend of David Cameron’s; assorted media figures, including Rupert Murdoch; and various PR folk, such as Roland Rudd, a City publicist said to be worth £50m.

Very briefly – you will bear in mind that everybody denies what everybody else says – there are three allegations. First, Mandelson told Osborne at Agni that he thought Gordon Brown was a bit of a plonker, or words to that effect. Second, Mandelson and Deripaska have “links” (a newspaper word which means “we think something dodgy is going on, but we’re not sure what”). Mandelson signed off an EU decision to lift tariffs on aluminium imports, obviously favourable to an aluminium tycoon. In Corfu, he stayed on the Russian’s yacht.

Though he claimed never to have met Deripaska before the aluminium decision, it turned out that they dined in Moscow in January 2005, with Nat Rothschild also present. Third, Osborne and Feldman talked to Deripaska about a possible donation to Tory funds, though the law states British parties cannot take money from foreigners.

The first two allegations probably reached the press because Osborne started leaking to discredit the new Business Secretary. Rothschild spilled the beans on the Deripaska donation, in a letter to the Times, because he thought it jolly bad form for Osborne – an Oxford contemporary and fellow member of the exclusive Bullingdon Club – to leak juicy gossip exchanged between privileged folk and allow the unwashed to read it in the papers.

My mind goes back now, not only to Cripps, but also to the 1930s when politicians, aristocrats, diplomats and businessmen met at country house weekends and decided Hitler was quite a decent chap who should be allowed to have most of what he wanted; and to the early 1960s when half the ruling class seemed to be involved in weekend sex orgies, complete with specially hired prostitutes, on country estates.
Those matters concerned only the Tories, but this one now involves both government and opposition, showing, in the northern phrase, how they all piss in the same pot. The details, obscured by denials and counter-denials, will escape most voters. But there is a sense, perhaps more in the middle class than the working class, that a super-class of rich people lives on a different planet from the rest of us and most politicians have been bought by them.

While the rest of us get screwed, our rulers, enjoying parties and freebies, making deals and exchanging gossip, are too busy to care.

Peter Wilby edited the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

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. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism