This is not where I was going to start this column – until a few hours ago, when I spent some 45 minutes or so listening to a group of people whose usefulness, one way or another, depends on a species of humanity known as “high net worth individuals”. Their subject was Brexit, with a super-topical splash of Trump, and the question they were mulling over was how far these latest unexpected turns of events might make London – because we were in London – a less desirable place for the likes of them to be.
Let me pass on their general conclusion. Their considered answer to the question was: not really. Loss of freedom of movement between the UK and the EU might make the mobile super-rich think a little harder about moving to London, but in the end, the benefits – English language, rule of law, education, healthcare (both private presumably), nice manners and culture (in the broadest sense) – would not only still draw them, but encourage them to stay.
The only thing that might encourage them to look instead at, say, Monaco or Switzerland, would be a change – prick up your ears here, Theresa May – in the non-dom tax arrangements. Then again, the changes made so far, they observed, had amounted to little more than tweaking – nothing, really, that a better (ie, more expensive) lawyer could not resolve, and that is probably where things would be left.
Then again, if the Government – a Conservative Government, they almost marvelled – applied itself a little more to making the pips squeak, then it would be less a matter of actually moving than taking out (that is, shopping around, with the emphasis on shopping) to add another desirable citizenship. HNWIs, it was stressed, weigh the costs and benefits when they choose a (second, third or fourth) passport. They regard loyalty, patriotism etc as outdated concepts associated with a time when people were conscripted to fight wars – wars that people like them ensure will never happen again. The Prime Minister could hardly wish for a better justification of her much-criticised citizen of the world, citizen of nowhere jibe.
Jeremy Corbyn might prick up his ears, too. If he wants to be electable – nay, rushed on a wave of popular fury through the famous portal of No 10 – he could do worse than acquire a recording of the occasion I attended – a part of the 10th Global Residency and Citizenship Conference, organised by Henley &Partners – and have it broadcast it in full as a Labour Party Political.
It is not the money or status attaching to this group that will stick. You would not be able to tell, from their dress or comportment, that their interests were bound up with the wealthy. That may also be why those who move in such circles seem to favour the term HNWIs – preferably as initials: it lacks any mention of actual money and is more discreet than the vulgar coining “super-rich”. No, it was their blissful lack of awareness of how they might be perceived beyond their charmed circle – the same lack of awareness that is observed by diarists and other witnesses to the Bolshevik Revolution – whose centenary, as it happens, falls next year.
And this makes the connection with what I was intending to write: the swirling suggestions in the social ether that what we are seeing in Trump-Brexit is nothing less than a revolution. Are there parallels, perhaps, to be found with 1789, 1848, or the most recent year of revolutions,1989? Could it be that this is how revolutions happen in modern industrialised democracies? Are we watching, in fact, a popular revolt by other means: peaceful and through the ballot box, courtesy of universal franchise?
To the extent that both in the UK and in the US a democratic vote – conducted according to the rules in place – not only resulted in rejection of the status quo, but endorsed the option furthest away from it, this does feel like a threshold. Whether it is revolution or, as others suggest, the end of “the West”, or the demise, at very least, of the social and economic settlement that has held since the end of the last world war, there is a sense that there can be no turning back.
However the change is defined, the common causes that appear to have precipitated Trump-Brexit – economic frustration, lack of prospects, concern for identity, resentment that citizenship and belonging no longer confer any advantage – are hard to separate. And they seem not only to link the two countries – the US and the UK – that signed up enthusiastically to globalisation and what was then dubbed the Anglo-Saxon model, but to give succour to unsavoury nationalism in parts of Europe that seemed to have cast it off.
Everywhere, it seems, the majority has flipped. Maybe the actual tipping point occurred a while back, but the majority went along with the more affluent, more educated minority, lacking the confidence to strike out. Maybe social media allowed what had long been a majority to recognise its strength. Maybe – in the UK – its voice had been muffled by the electoral system. The results are the same.
Is this modern revolution? Is it the spasm of an old order resisting its passing – as the Trump vote might look in the United States – or something whose significance we are exaggerating because we are seeing it close up? This will depend entirely on what happens next. Will Brexit actually mean Brexit, and even if it does, what will Brexit Britain look and feel like? Will the UK “take back control” – and will those who voted for it feel that it made the difference they craved? Will Trump deliver on the spirit, if not the actual letter, of his campaign promises? Will he be allowed to – by Congress, by his die-hard opponents – and could he be chased from office after one term, by the same angry and embittered electorate that lent him power?
The risk then, as with Brexit, is that a failed revolution by ballot-box is followed by old-fashioned revolution on the streets. And we, the minority, should be modest enough not to exclude any eventuality. After all, experts or elite, we have been wrong about pretty much everything else. The only certainty meanwhile is that the HNWIs will by then be long gone, having bought refuge as only they know how.
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