The idea that anything “luxurious” can create “paradise” has suddenly fallen out of political favour, and only Chris Smith has yet to catch on to this new trend. There he is, touring the regions trying to convince unemployed Merseyside youths that the extravagant Tate Modern and Royal Opera House are a boon to their way of life. “You’ll lose your benefit if you go and visit, but it’s well worth a look,” you can imagine him saying earnestly.
Meanwhile, paradise a la new Labour is becoming a very different cup of darjeeling. The focaccia-for-all era has ended and we appear to be entering Tony Blair’s more frugal, back-to-Labour-roots vision of Utopia. It seems a lifetime since the PM denied ministers their pay rises, but the instinct for self-flagellation has never really left Downing Street. Now the cult (in print and rhetoric, if not in reality) of self-denial seems to be spreading to other publicly answerable personalities.
Loyal old Greg Dyke has been first to leap on to the “lean is mean” bandwagon, and has issued a painful ban on croissants at breakfast meetings throughout the BBC. Continental bread in general really seems to annoy the new DG and, in another radical step, he has removed the “rustico bloomer” and “Italian baguettes” from the boardrooms of the big cheeses in the corporation.
These gestures are all well and good, but I have to warn Greg Dyke that sharing the same platter of sandwiches that researchers and guests are fed is only good policy if he means to keep his promise to halve the management sector at the Beeb. Two weeks ago, I went to bite a floppy sandwich with a pink filling while appearing on Radio 5 Live, only to have it snatched from my lips by a nervous producer. She warned me: “As you’re pregnant, it’s best just to nibble the bread and ignore the insides – we’ve had sickness.”
So, if press spin on recent Downing Street announcements is right, then paradise on this island would see bright-eyed Oxbridge students with regional accents discussing prudent ten-year plans to pay off loans, while BBC managers eat the same miserable, cold, poisonous snacks as their staff.
Any links with extravagance and its class connotations are to be avoided like the Militant Tendency and the WI. “Luxury” has become the sort of word that Alastair Campbell might let slip in regard to the lifestyle of a minister whose name he wants to besmirch. In speeches, it makes the user instantly sound less sincere: “Poverty is a luxury we cannot afford” has a Milburn-style buzz to it. And surely “We don’t have the luxury of being in opposition that the honourable gentleman enjoys” will be hurled across the floor to Hague any day now.
Yet luxury is beloved of new-Labour movers and shakers. It’s sipped thoughtfully on the Commons Terrace and (for certain underlings) snorted at Soho House, but remains hidden from the public and must never be flaunted on official day trips to one’s constituency up north. Three Jags, four homes and a butler may be keeping up with the Ecclestones for those at the top of the new social order. But advisers have finally caught on that, to Daily Mail readers, flamboyance is an irritating reminder that MPs they once considered “common” are now reaping the same financial rewards that they’ve enjoyed for decades.
Yet, perhaps for once, the pen-pushers have a point. Luxury preys on our most unpleasant and undemocratic instincts. That the word is so overused in advertising tells us as much. In order to have the best of anything, there must be a “worst” or “cheapest” to compare it with. It inspires division and Schadenfreude. John Prescott became a beacon of ridicule only when tabloid editors realised he had more homes than they did.
Until my honeymoon last week, I had lived a life free from the sort of superabundance that generates loathing and jealousy. Arriving at a five-star, diamond-class resort is shocking enough for the traditionally cattle-class traveller. Grinning staff wave, and your bags vanish from view as you enter the reception. Hot towels and cold drinks are proffered and, from then on, it gets really ridiculous.
But it was only when I was sitting on a sun lounger by one of the most exclusive swimming pools in the Caribbean that I discovered the true meaning of five-star luxury. Aquamarine water was lapping inches from my toes and the pool bar beckoned a matter of feet away. Drowsily, I fingered the blue flag attached to the side of my lounger and wondered what it was for.
Now, subconsciously I knew, all right? I knew, but couldn’t resist the urge to raise the flag. So, gently blushing under my tan, I raised the flag and waited. In seconds, Canon, one of the windsurfing instructors, strolled over and asked: “Would you like something from the bar?”
I ordered a Del Boy-style cocktail and watched in shame as he moved three steps to my right and leant towards the bar to place my order.
“Using slaves now, are we?” hissed my new husband as I sipped the hand-delivered cocktail.
Many other moments during our fantastic ten- day stay helped me to define five-star luxury. It is this: the unwillingness of the filthy rich to do anything but raise a fork or a glass to their lips without cheap labour being underpaid to do it for them.
One remark helped keep my self-disgust at bay long enough for me to get sunburnt. As West Indian staff waited endlessly on white Europeans, I finally admitted to Giovanni, the “facilities manager”, that I felt deeply uncomfortable with the style of “luxury” on offer and the smiling apartheid of the resort. “Don’t worry,” he smirked, “this isn’t aimed at your type of English anyway.”
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