It was hardly the most positive press that a government minister could attract, nor was the timing of the best. Jeremy Hunt, reports said, was about to top the Cabinet rich list, thanks to a £17m windfall from the sale of a company he had helped to found. News of the Health Secretary’s good fortune coincided with revelations about how many A&E departments were failing to meet their targets and doom-laden forecasts about the likely inability of the NHS to cope as winter draws on. So concerned about the situation was the Prime Minister, it was noted, that he had asked private hospitals to help out.
Then things became worse, much worse, with an intervention from John Major, former prime minister and all-party national treasure, who had only just received widespread plaudits for condemning energy companies for their “greed”. In a speech which he was probably not intended either for reporting or publication, he lamented the number of public-school products in the present Cabinet, and cited it as evidence of the dire state of social mobility in today’s Britain – which, of course, it is.
It is also dangerous political territory – so dangerous that David Cameron came out to agree with him. But the damage had been done. Inevitably, Sir John’s remarks had become entwined with Jeremy Hunt and his £17m, even though privilege gained through a paid-for education and personal wealth are not necessarily, or always, the same thing. You did not have to search far to find league tables of Cabinet wealth, showing that no fewer than seven senior government ministers, and two former ministers, were easily in the millionaire bracket, with Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, Mr Hunt’s nearest rival, clocked in at a solid £8.2m. The Prime Minister, his Chancellor, George Osborne, and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, came further down the list, with around £4m apiece.
So, in these supposedly modern, meritocratic times, all the great offices of state are held by multimillionaires. What does that say about Britain? What it says, of course, is that wealth remains very unevenly spread. What it does not automatically say, however, is that a rich minister is automatically a bad minister, out of touch with ordinary voters, which is how it was widely interpreted. Mr Hunt, remember, volunteers in an NHS hospital once a week.
You could, in fact, argue the contrary. First of all, not all the Cabinet’s wealth is inherited, though much of it is. Mr Hunt made his millions from an entrepreneurial venture – a directory of language courses – dreamt up during a year’s teaching in Japan. Is it good or bad for a minister to have a decent business brain and to have succeeded at something outside politics?
But the chief reason why wealth should not be condemned out of hand in a government minister is because – unlike in some countries – a rich minister here is not by definition a corrupt minister. On the contrary, so long as a minister’s wealth precedes his or her government appointment, it may actually facilitate good decision-making and provide a defence against forceful lobbying. It is not the wealthy ministers or MPs who are caught out by investigative journalists posing as sheikhs or offering lucrative PR contracts from dubious foreign governments, it is those who would like to be, and are none too fussy about how they do it.
When in Parliament or government, the seriously wealthy may be less vulnerable either to flattery or mega-bucks. You may not agree with the policy choices they make, but incorruptibility has to be a virtue. And while wealth does not necessarily exclude venality – there are always those who want more than they have – and the poor can be absolutely as principled as the super-rich, a cushion of cash means that someone neither needs, nor needs to bestow, favours.
You may laugh a hollow laugh, and there are – it goes without saying – reasons beyond money why people, including politicians, act dishonestly. David Laws fiddled his expenses, as he admitted, to conceal his living arrangements; he did not need the money. Chris Huhne passed on his speeding points not because he could not pay the fine, he could have paid it many times over, but because – it must be presumed – he did not want the inconvenience and the shame of losing his licence.
All that said, not being beholden to anyone for anything is a virtue, and one that money makes simpler than it would otherwise be. Remember the bad taste that the Blair family holidays with sundry celebrity patrons left behind, and how we tried to establish whether and how much they had paid? Or Nicolas Sarkozy’s post-election yacht trip, courtesy of a multimillionaire businessman, or the Clintons’ difficulties over the Whitewater property venture that actually lost money, while turning into a legal and ethical minefield?
When they moved into the Downing Street flat, the Camerons paid for a new kitchen themselves, and consider the benefits. Instead of constant speculation about how much Samantha’s new kitchen cost there has been almost no interest. It is their business. The rich don’t need to “flip” houses to make a few bob; they don’t need free cars or free holidays that place them in debt to others.
These are also arguments for paying MPs and other public servants a decent salary. But there is a big difference between depending on a salary, however adequate, and the financial security that frees someone from undue influence. The whiff of scandal that haunted the Blairs and the Clintons showed the perils of not having quite enough.
What is it in the aisles that ails me?
Notwithstanding Sainsbury’s latest stellar figures, I am wondering whether our big supermarkets might be approaching a turning point. I went food shopping last weekend and the thought occurred as I contemplated the piles of bagged salad, bruised apples, unripe pears and the benighted banks of “self-checkouts”.
My expedition was a disaster. The one time I was hoping for special offers, buy-one-get-one-free etc, there were precious few to be had. If this means that someone is tackling waste, after Tesco’s revelations about how much it, and its customers, throw in the bin, that’s all to the good. But the quality and variety seemed lower than it used to be; assistance sparse, and morale sagging – in so far as you can judge such matters.
Of course, local management may be to blame. But as more of the big chains plant little replicas of themselves around city centres, we seem to be following a continental model without the essential ingredients that make it work.
For years British supermarkets have prided themselves in being global leaders, in general quality, freshness and choice. Over the past decade, I would say, that has been changing. We have been caught up and overtaken by our European neighbours, who pioneered the trend away from out-of-town hypermarkets and towards smaller in-town branches – recognising, perhaps, that food alone was insufficient reason to spend valuable time and fuel traipsing to the outskirts. The trouble is that our high streets have largely lost the specialist shops that supplement those smaller chain stores. Could the twilight of the hypermarket encourage their rebirth?