Chris Bryant: Millionaires don't have to be bad leaders – ours are just dangerously out of touch

A Political Life
  • @ChrisBryantMP

Not many today have heard of Sir Richard Acland MP, the ascetic 15th baronet of Columb John in Devon.

But in 1944, having recently left the Liberals and helped to found the Commonwealth Party (he later joined Labour), he gave all of his 19,000 acre family estate to the National Trust. It remains the largest donation the trust has ever had.

I thought of Acland this week when, at a question session for local schools, a youngster asked me whether a government of millionaires could ever be in touch with ordinary people. In the week that we found out that the Prime Minister has bought a field for the pleasantly spare sum of £137,000 and on top of the news that top boardroom pay has risen by 49 per cent in just one year while waiters and hairdressers have seen their pay packets fall by 11 per cent and 4.5 per cent respectively, it was a tough question.

Envy is never a happy political bedfellow. It distorts common sense and undermines better moral arguments. What is more, I was taught to judge someone not according to the colour of their skin, their gender, their sexuality or the strength of their bank account, but according to the quality of their character and the strength of their convictions. So I don't believe there can be anything intrinsically wrong with being a rich politician.

None of us encompasses all of life within our experience, so what really counts is the will and the political imagination to see beyond our own cribs. Acland was not alone in having been privileged by birth but radical by politics. So too were Clement Attlee (Haileybury), Hugh Dalton (Eton) and Stafford Cripps (Winchester). Many a patrician Tory has made a difference

But the gulf of privilege is growing wider and more dangerous today. It's not just the wages of the poorest rising by less than the surface of the meniscus, a mere 0.1 per cent last year, whilst inflation raced ahead at 5 per cent. Or that while average wages over the past 30 years have risen threefold, the head of Barclays' pay has soared 5,000 per cent.

For me the bigger danger is the arrogant insouciance of modern wealth. Where once the rich, even the aggressively entrepreneurially wealthy, thought of their money as held in trust, now there's a sense of fierce entitlement – and it's opening up a seismic faultline in the body politic. Tony Blair was blind to the gap, but the Government's "on your bike" economics betrays a wilful blindness to the plight of ordinary families. So no, a cabinet of millionaires need not be out of touch. But the rich (politicians) of today are – and that way madness lies.

Varnishing a man's needs

Sometimes marketing is truly perverse. My husband and I (a phrase that still makes me quiver) were travelling back from the Rhondda last Sunday with our friend Joe Phelan, who decided he needed a magazine. Bizarrely, GQ on its own was £4, whereas GQ and Glamour bought together were just £3. A pretty odd combo, especially as Glamour included a free bottle of nail varnish – not, so far as I'm aware, essential for the gentleman about town, yet.

Some of our media will never reform

Watching Leveson, and the Daily Mail's reporting of it, I fear some things never change. At a Hacked Off meeting on Tuesday evening, someone had a copy of the Mail from 1949. A two-year Royal Commission had just published its report on the press and complained (rather snootily) that many papers presented "the matrimonial adventures of a film star as though they possessed the same intrinsic importance as events affecting the peace of a continent". Yet the Mail's 1949 headline was "Newspapers vindicated".

Freedom fighters from the valleys

Tuesday morning there was a debate on Colombia, a country ravaged by overlapping wars that have seen thousands murdered with impunity. One Twitter follower attacked me for taking part, as the debate had nothing to do with the Rhondda. Fortunately, my constituents are not that parochial. When the Imperial War Museum did an exhibition on the Spanish Civil War, I was proud that the list of British dead included Thomas Picton, William Davies, Harry Dobson, Sidney James and David Jones – all from the Rhondda but who thought that freedom was worth fighting for, even in a foreign land.

Word games in the Middle East

On Wednesday night at a fundraising dinner for the newly formed David Cairns Foundation, David Miliband told of a Labour Friends of Israel visit to Jerusalem I was on. It was gruelling. By the last meeting, with the then Labour leader Shimon Peres, we were exhausted. So we invented a game to keep us going. Each of us had to introduce a word into a question to the great man. Some were easy enough. I had "colloque". But Meg Munn had "estuarial" and Linda Perham "sensuous". David Mencer, for whom Peres was a hero, had "moist". "Mr Peres," he began, "when you became leader of the Labour party for the second time, were your eyes... moist?" James Purnell ("quixotic") failed completely, as Peres looked quizzically at him and asked: "Why do you say quixotic?' David Cairns clearly won. We'd given him "syphilis" (if you see what I mean). As clever as pie, he asked, "Mr Peres, what do you think we should take back to Britain? The crusaders came back with syphilis. Obviously, we are not going to do that." Peres looked very confused.