John Walsh: Patriotism pays for benevolent billionaire

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I'm not sure what I most admire about the multi-billionaire J Paul Getty II. He's a man of such taste, judgement, discernment and generosity towards the undeserving poor (art galleries, cricket grounds, film institutes, though not, at the time of writing, incredibly talented newspaper hacks) it's hard to know where to start.

He's so kind, he donated £5m to the Conservative Party just two days before it was deep-sixed with all hands last Thursday. The timing of the cheque was a little strange, since the campaigning stuff was all over by then and there was nothing for the party to spend the money on apart from Kleenex and anti-depressants. But Sir J Paul now explains that it was an investment, that he handed over the cash because "the Conservative Party is, in my view, the party best equipped to defend the British way of life. I hope my donation will help to enable a new leader to deliver a Conservative victory at the next general election".

Ah, bless him. The idea that, for an outlay of just a few mill, the hapless and sundered Tories could get themselves arrested, let alone returned to power, in four or five years ­ the idea that they could do it with 25 or 250 million ­ is rather sweet. And terribly American, even though J Paul is such a crazed Anglophile he has renounced US citizenship.

But Mr Getty's donation comes with expectations, if not quite strings, attached. What on earth do you think he means by "the British way of life"?Mr Getty hardly ever gives interviews, so we cannot ask him. But we can surmise. He loves cricket and his favourite possession is an oval cricket ground all of his own. Apart from the threat from Pakistani bowling, though, the game does not seem in serious trouble.

He loves English stately homes (he has a 2,500-acre estate at Wormsley, Buckinghamshire) but is unlikely to see his own repossessed by a bank or expropriated by an underclass. Does he, perhaps, get warm feelings about "the British way of life" when he thinks of a) Earl Grey tea, b) Sailing By on Radio Four, c) Threadneedle Street, d) phlegm, e) mock-Tudor beams and that stuff about elderly spinsters cycling to mass? Probably. They are all admirable things, if more "English" than "British". But none of them is under attack from any quarter or in imminent need of being defended.

A terrible suspicion assails you. Can it be that Sir J Paul is being a teensy bit racist and looking to the Conservative Party to stem the tide of non-British blood on to these shores? I can't believe that. No devoted modern patriot could look without pride and devotion on a) Michael Portillo, b) Sven Goran Eriksson, c) Sophie Dahl and d) Nasser Hussein, despite their tragic handicap of hailing from foreign parts. And the likelihood Mr Getty ever left Wormsley Lodge long enough to encounter asylum-seekers in Hastings or Dover is rather slight.

Which leaves only? Doh! Of course. The quid. All the stuff about "the British way of life" is simply a sentimental code for the pound and the threat it's under from the euro. You may say, Yeah, course, he's worried about how his personal fortune of more than £1bn will shrink after being converted to euros. But I don't believe that's what is worrying him.

I think he suffers from a form of economic nostalgia. The Anglophile Getty has conceived a fondness for his little friends, sterling pounds and pence, that is quite understandable since he has so damn many of them. His fondness for "the British way of life" ­ the royal family, Elgar ­ comes from a huge and happy familiarity with their images on bank-notes and pound coins, and getting confused about how much he loves which. So "the British way of life" is a rather brilliant euphemism for "my cash".

Funny thing, patriotism. Once upon a time it was the last refuge of a scoundrel. Now it's the natural retreat of a nervous billionaire.

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

Comments