Peter York On Ads: Good old Britannia – fair play, cricket and forget the 'filthy rich'

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The Independent Online

Peter Mandelson, in one of his many inspired '90s moments, said that New Labour was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich"

It was, of course, immensely encouraging for people who wanted to make shed-loads of money – people with that gorgeous meritocratic streak. But also – and here we have the law of not wholly intended consequences – it was strangely reassuring for people who already had acre-spreads of it.

New Labour, as part of its charm offensive of 1995-96, told the rich they wouldn't be squeezed until the pips squeaked. And the UK now has a distinctly American-looking wealth and income distribution. The relationship of the top 10 per cent of earners to the bottom 10 per cent is way more unequal that it used to be.

Some people argue that if everybody's better off, what does it matter? And anyway, the picture is distorted by the foreign big rich, who've taken over central London and live here for tax reasons but don't really count. This is a difficult one because the rich, wherever they come from, have increased their incomes and assets much faster than the poor. Look at the rate of increase in the incomes of blue-chip bosses – often 20 per cent or more over the past two years.

And, warming to the idea of becoming a latter-day John Pilger or a less humorous Mark Steel, what about the law? Is it more or less repressive than before? Are Brits safeguarded and equal before the law? Are we vigilant about our traditional freedoms, or could they be abolished in return for some economic assurances to the David Brent classes and the right to be on 'Big Brother'? Helena Kennedy's book 'Just Law' made the case for worrying about what any Nasty Party could do with our present bundle of potentially repressive legislation.

Our idea of ourselves includes wonderfully romantic notions of fairness, chivalry and modesty. However, a lot of the "British gent" code applies only to a particular slice of the public school, upper-middle governing class in a particular period – from the late-19th Century to the mid-1950s. Now we're the most teenagely unwed, pregnant nation in the West and tops for prison population size.

But you'll only hear about the lovely old stuff in the new Britannia commercial. The building society has two things going for it: its name and its mutual status. With some of the biggest societies having turned into banks, mutuality – the notional ownership of the customers – seems rather special and right-on instead of just the natural order of things. Britannia has put these ideas together to make a commercial in which it bids to own "British fairness". It's a sort of PJ O'Rourke set-up – American outsider/insider says Britain is just a fairer place and he likes it like that.

This American sees fairness in our lovely cricket fields – which lets him talk to camera from the pavilion – but it isn't just "jolly old fair play", it's everyone. Which means an open debate in a TV studio where a caring woman with turbulent hair stands up and says "it's simply not true", and gets hugely applauded.

(The American isn't PJ O'Rourke, of course, just the nice kind of turtle-neck, liberal American who understands us.)

Then there's some very PC stuff about the Britannia "building a fairer society" and giving back £50m to its customer owners last year.

It's as if the Britannia had invented this brilliant idea in our grand old tradition just yesterday. And so, in a sense, it has.

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