Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Money and good judgement don’t mix

From Allen Stanford to Jacqui Smith, the mighty are losing touch with reality

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When “Sir” Allen Stanford arrived at Lord’s by helicopter last summer, bearing his monstrous chest stuffed with $20m in cash, the leaders of English cricket prostrated themselves before him. All that was missing was for Giles Clarke, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, to say, “Cricket is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”

That indescribably vulgar occasion was a display of hubris which has duly met its nemesis with the collapse of Stanford’s financial empire, and the utter humiliation of everyone connected with him. The appalling stunts and woes he has inflicted on a once noble game have done more damage than can even be assessed as yet. But there is more to it.

This affair is a perfect parable for our time. We have been living through one of those periods, like France under Guizot with his enrichissez-vous, or the American gilded age in the late 19th century with robber barons ruling the land, when the love of money was unashamed, or even held up as a public good. Now as then, all restraint is discarded – and in the process the mighty ones have lost contact with reality.

For bankers, politicians and sportsmen alike, “anything goes” is the rule. New Labour made a cult of “wealth creation”, and Gordon Brown lives in awe of bankers. (His predecessor actually is a banker, if Tony Blair’s $10m sinecure from JP Morgan makes him one.) So much does Brown revere moneymen that he not only surrounded himself with them but also handed the banks £500bn in the autumn effectively with no conditions. He was then surprised and pained when they used the money to rebuild their balance sheets rather than lending it as he had fondly hoped.

Since then, he has not only refused to accept that he might bear any responsibility for events – we have all “been brought low by an economic hurricane that nobody could have predicted”, he said on Thursday, meaning that he himself hadn’t begun to foresee it – but he also has quite failed to notice the tide of public rage against his moneyed chums. The idea that any bonuses at all should be paid by banks which have been bailed out by the taxpayer is so obviously intolerable as to suggest a financial and political class that has not just lost the plot but lost its marbles.

One of New Labour’s other characteristics was to make a virtue out of pragmatism: no longer tired ideology, but “what works”. The trouble was that, in practice, this meant asking not “What is the right thing to do?” but “What can we get away with?”. Blair set the tone early by insisting that he was pretty straight sort of guy, in the context, it will be recalled, of his government’s changing its policy on tobacco sponsorship of motor racing after Labour had accepted a huge donation from Bernie Ecclestone.

Most people did not think that “straight “was quite the word for that, and 12 years on Jacqui Smith’s latest difficulties illustrate yet again the sheer obtusity of this Government. It’s easy to wax sentimental about the good old days when politicians were better people, which they weren’t always by any means. And yet. When C R Attlee was leader of the opposition, and in the days when the Commons would sit till 10 if not later every evening, he would catch the last underground train to Pinner and then walk a long way home rather than take a taxi in order to save money.

That was his “first” – and indeed his only – home. There were then no parliamentary allowances for second homes, or anything else. When the Smith case is investigated it may be that the Home Secretary will be held to have done nothing outside the strict letter of the regulations. But most voters do not see how, in plain English or basic honesty, a bedroom in her sister’s London house could be defined as a first home, so that the second-home allowance was then claimed for a larger house in her constituency.

Our rulers no longer understand these things. And nor do those who run our sports. No hindsight at all is needed to say that the deal between the ECB and Stanford was from the beginning shameful, repulsive – and fraught with danger. I have never had the pleasure of meeting Allen Stanford, but even from a distance I could see that the fellow wasn’t quite 16 anas to the rupee. He has “rotter” written all over him, and the sight of Clarke and Sir Ian Botham (that other knightly figure, as Sky television reminds us every time his name is mentioned) smirking over the loot at Lord’s revolted many people, even before Stanford cavorted with the cricketers’ wives, and then tried to disappear.

To ask, in the ponderous phrase, whether the ECB conducted due diligence is meaningless: plainly there were not enough questions asked. Nor did anyone at Lord’s wonder when loathsome Twenty20 was dreamed up whether it might not prove a veritable Frankenstein’s monster that would destroy anything recognisable, and admirable, as cricket.

Once upon a time, cricket was run by the old buffers of the MCC, who were often obscurantist, blinkered and even bigoted, as their lamentable fondness for white South Africa showed. But, as that cricket-lover George Orwell said of English judges even at their most brutal and reactionary, they were also personally honest.

So was Herbert Morrison, one of Attlee’s colleagues in the greatest of Labour governments 60 years ago. He once said that, although an opponent of the death penalty, he would keep capital punishment for one thing alone, corruption in public life or embezzlement of taxpayers’ money.

One wonders what he would have thought of his grandson Peter Mandelson’s adoring phrase about the filthy rich – or about “Labour” politicians who have put those words into practice. Our politicians should think themselves lucky that Morrison’s principle doesn’t apply.

If it did, every lamppost in Parliament Square might be a gibbet.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include ‘The Strange Death of Tory England’

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