Westminster isn’t sure. But it’s suddenly obsessed with them
Recently, one Tory cabinet member went for dinner at a top London hotel with some of the most famous members of the financial elite. Good food and better wine: it was the kind of occasion that, in days gone by, would have turned into an orgy of mutual self-congratulation. But the world has changed. The bankers spent the evening attacking the Conservative party for not doing enough to defend them. The cabinet member became steadily more irritated, and as soon as he left the hotel, turned to a friend and decried ‘the obscene arrogance of these people’. The contempt, it seems, is now mutual.
Now is not a good time to be rich in Britain. This Tory’s hostility towards the wealthy is just a single example of a mood that’s seized hold of Westminster. A decade ago, millionaires and billionaires were feted uncritically by the leaderships of both parties. Few asked questions about where their money had come from, let alone whether it was deserved. New Labour famously declared that it was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’. But now politicians are competing with each other to see who can come up with the most damning epithet for their public enemy no. 1, those they term the ‘undeserving rich’.
Ed Miliband has attacked the ‘selfish, greedy and immoral’ bankers ‘who took millions while destroying people’s savings’. But this is positively mild compared to George Osborne’s attack last weekend on the ‘leeches on society’ who secrete their money away in offshore bank accounts.
It is easy to dismiss the Tories’ hostility as mere political positioning. But it isn’t. It’s visceral. They believe that the ‘undeserving rich’ are in danger of discrediting the case for capitalism and driving the country to the left. As one Tory minister says, ‘the system needs some sort of moral defence’.
That defence, they argue, is being undermined by these people.