Friday, 23 October 2015

Born to lead, apt to fawn

Hasn’t it been demeaning, the spectacle of David Cameron and George Osborne down on their bellies before Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, begging him to buy up bits of Britain?

Please, sir, do help yourself. It's all for sale...
Cameron, born to lead, is in his element fawning on the powerful
The thing about Cameron and Osborne is that they come out of what people like them like to think of as “the top drawer” of British society. Cameron inherited money; he was educated at Eton, the very top of the British public school system, and Oxford University; George Osborne is in line to inherit a baronetcy and become the eighteenth holder of the title; he was educated at St Paul’s School, only marginally less prestigious than Eton, and of course Oxford.

Both young men distinguished themselves there as members of the Bullingdon Club. With the future Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, they left a trail of havoc through repeated evenings of drunkenness and vandalism. The damage, for instance to restaurants they trashed, was paid for by one Daddy or another. Johnson even put a flowerpot through the window of an Indian restaurant, an offence for which a poorer perpetrator would probably have served time, or at least probation, and would have found distantly career-limiting.

This background classifies such people as members of the old English ruling class. You understand that you don’t actually have to be good at anything, or particularly competent, or even particularly hardworking – you just have to be what you were born. There are enough voters prepared to give you their preference simply on that basis – “you’re in the ruling class, so you should rule over us.”

This, you might think, would make them imperious and arrogant. As indeed it does, but only to people below them in the social scale. George Osborne, for instance, is overseeing the introduction of massive cuts in the system of tax credits which allows the working poor to pay survive on low incomes. The policy was the subject of a high-profile attack on live television recently, in which a woman who'd voted Conservative wept as she accused the Party she’d supported of breaking its explicit word not to make these cuts – “Shame on you,” she called out.

But Osborne feels no such shame. He’s described himself as “comfortable” with the policy. Well, why wouldn’t he be? He’s been comfortable since birth. By birth, indeed.

Where all trace of arrogance disappears, and indeed all pride, to be replaced by the most obsequious subservience is when such people meet others wealthier or more powerful than they are. And that is the sight we’ve enjoyed with the Chinese leader.

No other country in Europe, and certainly not the United States, is prepared to open up its nuclear industry to the Chinese. Simple security considerations rules such a notion out – the Chinese are trading partners, but they are also formidable adversaries of the West.

One might imagine the British Conservatives would feel the same way. After all, they criticise the views of the opposition Labour Party as inimical to national security. You might therefore expect them to be highly touchy on the subject of Chinese control on matters so sensitive.

Indeed, it’s interesting that Germany, the most successful economy in Europe, has not only not allowed foreigners to control its nuclear industry, it is moving rapidly towards eliminating any nuclear power stations at all. Far from suffering by this policy, Germany has become more prosperous and more powerful still by taking a dominant position in renewable energy technology.

Cameron and Osborne, on the other hand, have been pleading with the Chinese to make serious investments in British nuclear technology. The main business of the visit by Xi Jinping has been to tie up that deal. So not only do we remain dependent on dangerous technology, we’ve made it still more risky by giving a measure of control over it to a nation with little in common with Western values. And all this has been done in response to the supplication of our leaders-by-birth.

There were also other deals, of course. One involved an agreement not to carry out cyber attacks. Since many of the cyber attacks around the world originate in China, this sounds terribly like the kind of deal that’s struck with someone in a long overcoat and a fedora hat: “give us a piece of your nuclear industry, and nothing nasty will happen to your computer systems. Just remember: we know where you live, and some of my associates are far less scrupulous than I am.”

Meanwhile, there are other issues that need dealing with. Cameron has spent so much time wining and dining Xi Jinping that he has found it difficult to turn his attention to them.

For instance, the NHS is under pressure to generate savings of £20 billion. It spends some £5.1 billion annually on treating the effects of obesity. In an intelligent move, Public Health England was asked to investigate the problem and come up with suggestions. It has produced a report one of whose principal recommendations is a tax on high-sugar food and drinks. The researchers found that consumption of such products is sensitive to tax levels.

Cameron’s response? To rule out such an option. And, as he admits himself, without even reading the report.

He has, no doubt, been too busy doing what he does best – hanging around with the rich and powerful, flattering them and enjoying sumptuous banquets. Actual work has had to be rather sidelined.

You see? You don’t have to be particularly able. You don’t have to be particularly assiduous. All you need to rise to the top in Tory Britain is to have been born and brought up in the right circles.

And know how to fawn on wealthy autocrats.

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