Jeremy Warner: The rich are indeed different from us

Outlook: Politicians living the billionaire lifestlye help illustrate the difference
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The Independent Online

Scott Fitzgerald reportedly said to his his fellow novelist Ernest Hemingway: "The rich are different from us." Betrayal and skulduggery set against the backdrop of luxury yachts, lavish cocktail parties, billionaire lifestyles and sun-kissed Mediterranean islands – it's all somehow reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, the classic Fitzgerald novel set in 1920s New York and Long Island. This too was a period of great excess and opulence that eventually culminated in a crash and economic depression. The lifestyles of today's super-rich are no less remote and apparently vacuous than that of Gatsby, a mysterious loner whose wealth was said to originate from bootlegging and who bought his way into high society by throwing parties at his Long Island mansion.

For the instant wealth of bootlegging in the 1920s, read investment banking, hedge fund managers, private equiteers and Russian oligarchs, all now routinely depicted as thieves and rogues. This kind of demonisation takes place in every bust, but it is much worse this time, and possibly as bad as the opprobrium reserved for the money men of Wall Street in the economic contraction of the 1930s.

The sight of George Osborne and Peter Mandelson living the billionaire lifestyle in the company of today's Gatsbys is good for neither political party, but I suspect it is going to be rather worse for the Tories, for it only confirms a possibly mistaken but stereotypical view of the Conservatives as a party in the pocket of rich nobs.

Nat Rothschild's decision to do the dirty on his friend Mr Osborne, and indeed the party for which he is a regular fund-raiser, remains as hard to understand as ever. Certainly, it is not fully explained by the obvious fury Mr Rothschild feels over the way Mr Osborne betrayed confidences learnt while holidaying as his guest in Corfu. The rules of the rich man's club require discretion, or even a vow of silence, and Mr Osborne broke them. Friends insist there is no more to it than that, but the public will be forgiven its scepticism.

As it happens, Mr Rothschild is not really the former waster made good as a hedge fund manager he is sometimes depicted as. As co-chairman of the New York hedge fund group Atticus Capital, he doesn't actually manage and make the money at all, but rather acts as a seductive figurehead whose wealth of family contacts yields squillions in capital to be invested through the Atticus funds. As for us mere mortals, what better way to conclude than the last line of The Great Gatsby. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past". Let's hope all this excess hasn't landed us back in the 1930s.