Even money can't buy acceptance

'There is something dishonest about minding so much about such scandals while never questioning coarser forms of influence'
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The Independent Online

As the media hangs on with its teeth to the many fine coats of Lakshmi Mittal, the Hindujas are beginning to surface again. Sir Richard Packer, a former permanent secretary, has come out blazingly in defence of the British Ambassador in Romania, Richard Ralph, who has been left holding the responsibility for the infamous letter sent from 10 Downing Street supporting the successful bid by Mr Mittal's not-quite-British company, LNM, for the nationalised Sidex steelworks.

Now evidence is emerging to show that the Prime Minister himself brokered the £1m donation by the Hindujas to the Dome, uncomfortably close to the time one of the brothers was trying to get British citizenship. Other stories were surfacing about cosy tax arrangements available to such businessmen who have special status as "non-domiciled residents", which allows them to pay substantially lower tax than the rest of us.

Once more, tiresome though it is, British Asians are called upon to explain why we are such a dodgy lot, still carrying the venal ways of our hopeless homelands, now dragging down upright English and Scots gentlemen and women of influence, who, as we all know, can never ever be corrupt. Unless they are tricked, that is, by wily oriental gentlemen who dazzle and confuse, maybe hypnotise their gullible victims and get them to do dishonourable things. Then, one day, the politicians wake up, rub their eyes, blink and lo! find themselves in the middle of a glaring scandal which upsets them terribly.

Now I am no acolyte of the excessively rich, Asian or otherwise, as readers should know by now. But these lingering prejudices of the Raj are execrable and even worse are the assumptions behind such scandals.

For there is, in our country, an undoubted hierarchy of villainy. A Jewish no-good is much worse than an Anglo-Saxon crook and an Asian or black rogue is worse still. This applies as much to small time muggers as it is does to clever millionaire fraudsters. And when misdemeanours are discovered to be a collaboration between Jewish and Asian plotters, just observe the froth, wrath and convulsions around the nation.

When these already suspect people indulge in the normal dirty business that keeps the establishment going, they are judged by higher standards. You can almost taste the sneers and disapproval when reports emerge about Lord Levy's activities as a Labour party fund raiser. He is Jewish, you see. As was that other one, Robert Maxwell. Can't trust them.

And watch them, especially when they do business with other Jews or Asians who think they can infiltrate Britain's sacred spaces. It was easy once, of course, to keep these enclaves clean of unpredictable outsiders, but now that all the political parties and other institutions need their cash, ways must be found of getting at this loot. But how to do this without terrible compromises?

These hapless custodians are likely to feel ever more vulnerable as the number of thrusting Asian millionaires continues to rise exponentially.

The latest list of Britain's richest contains fresh new names – Tahir Mohsen, Jasminder Singh, Vijay and Bhikhu Patel, Tom Singh, Gulu Lalvani. They will soon be on many unexpected party lists (of both sorts) now that they have been named among the supermen. Their troubles will then begin, as they try to understand the peculiar and slanted principles of their sparkling new white admirers, values which still confuse me.

Is it any more disgraceful to use money to get what you want than to use your name, friendships, university and school connections and all those many skilful and invisible ways that facilitate the flow of positions, status and wealth-making enterprises in Britain? At least money is a kind of equaliser and you can find the stuff if you really want something that badly.

But how do I acquire the surname, say, Freud, or the intimate contact with the powerful that is available to the children of Margaret Jay or Paddy Ashdown, or the life-long friends of Ian Hislop or Alan Bennett, or Ken Clarke? Not that I am not trying. I was once congratulated by a commissioning editor of a liberal newspaper for the "genius stroke" of adding "Brown" to my otherwise alien-sounding name. I wouldn't have made it "so big" without this comforting appendage, he said.

I was with an acquaintance at a conference in Sweden last autumn. He is proudly English and a powerful operator and we were joined by one of his friends. Within 10 minutes, the latter had offered a job to a relative of the former. It was an exchange of favours. "I owe you" were the last words I heard as they parted.

I was caught somewhere between admiration and envy, nothing more noble, as once more I was made to understand just how this fair and meritocratic society works. And so it is when names are thought of for non-executive directorships, consultancies, selections for political advisors and candidates, arts critics, chairmanships of big bodies and so on.

If you are not a born insider, you will never be given prestigious slots in the media (not even the BBC, which would still rather promote trusted white names than take risks with swarthy interlopers: check out the main line-up for its new channel, BBC 4) or the chairmanship of the Arts Council or get that call from Tony Blair asking if you would like to take over from Alastair Campbell, who truly needs a break.

There is something iniquitous and dishonest about minding so much when coarser forms of influence are revealed, while never questioning this hidden trade in nepotism. Mr Mittal, for example, gave £200,000 to the London School of Economics just before his daughter tried and failed to get into the prestigious college. This is seen as yet another stinking example of illicit influence which on this occasion didn't work. But hang on. The openly amoral and sycophantic Woodrow Wyatt confessed a few years ago that he had to ring not one but two chummy vice-chancellors to get his daughter places at the universities they ran. He was successful both times so the girl had the luxury of moving from one to the other. I know which method I think is the more pernicious.

Remember, too, that in many societies around the world, money changing hands for favours is not regarded with much disapproval – it is just what people do, just as instinctive clubbishness is what people expect here. And if you live in a country where money is the only thing people really like about you, can you be blamed for using this advantage in any way you can? On Friday, Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence said: "We black people are still on the outside looking in. That has not changed."

She is wrong. Some people with jangling pockets are now inside. But their terms of entry are tendentious and they are learning that flattery and gifts will only get them a temporary membership. However well they learn the smoozing tricks of their white patrons (I can't tell you how many of them have started sponsoring awards, fund-raising bashes, expensive dinners in Park Lane Hotels, graced by Cherie Blair), they are still really thought of as unreliable little wogs, best avoided if only such a thing were still possible.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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