Friday, December 10, 2010

People against Power

Violent strikes in France, the Wikileaks affair, Student protests in London - what’s going on? Do these apparently disparate events have anything in common? The media certainly treat them as entirely unconnected. Yet all three have at their core a common distrust and rejection of those who govern us.

A great deal of the current disaffection stems from the fact that politicians are making tax payers foot the bill for the near ruin visited on Western economies by corrupt bankers and financial speculators. Wikileaks has added to the discontent by revealing details of how governments flout national and international law, routinely lie to their own people and subvert the decisions of their own elected parliaments.

While it is too soon to characterize the present as a turning point in our history, we should not entirely dismiss the thought that we may be witnessing the first skirmishes in a prolonged struggle of the people against their rulers; a struggle between demos and plutos, between the citizenry and an unholy alliance of government and finance, between a people’s Democracy and a Plutocracy sugar-coated with a regular but meaningless electoral ritual in which faces may change but policies emphatically do not.

At first sight, such a conflict may seem ludicrously one-sided, with governments enjoying all the resources of state power as well as the backing of capital and big business. But the people have the advantage of numbers and an ability to attack from unsuspected directions - such as Operation Payback and the 500 and growing mirror sites for Wikileaks.

Rulers dislike and fear the populace; and for that reason, if for no other, we should never trust them no matter how earnestly they claim to act on our behalf. Shakespeare - who knew more about political life than most of us will ever learn - understood the relationship all too clearly:

MENENIUS: The helms o’ the state, who care for you like fathers....
FIRST CITIZEN: They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their store-houses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily, to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us.

Has anything at all changed since the Bard wrote those lines?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Peter Mandelson - How to be a Global Consultant

The media delight in bestowing nicknames on top politicians: Iron Lady, Grocer Heath, Two Jags, Prince of Darkness and so on - the latter being one of several disobliging epithets by which we have come to know the machiavellian figure of Peter Mandelson.

Baron Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool is also widely known under the simpler, more innocuous rubric of “Mandy”. Curiously, he is the second person to enjoy recognition by this name, the first being a good-time girl called Marilyn “Mandy” Rice-Davies who, in 1963, became a key character in a titillating scandal - the infamous and tragic Profumo Affair - involving a government minister, a heredity peer of the realm, an osteopath, and a Soviet official.

In addition to their nickname, Ms Rice-Davies and Lord Mandelson share other attributes across the years: diligence in building an address book with names of the rich and powerful, a sense of how to exploit them, and an ability to arouse the prurient interest of press and public.

We do not need to be told why Ms Rice-Davies proved so fascinating: her attractions spoke for themselves. Lord Mandelson’s charms, on the other hand, may seem more elusive; that is until one considers the allure of power which can be every bit as magnetic as sex, especially when allied to a somewhat villainous reputation.

Villainous? Well why else would he be known as the “Dark Lord” - (yet another of his evocative sobriquets). Here is a man condemned more than once to Hades who, through a mysterious alchemy, has always managed to re-emerge vigorous and refreshed as if he had found nourishment in the barren wastes of obscurity where ordinary earthlings might expect to perish.

His first descent to that ignoble place occurred in 1998 after he failed to declare either to parliament or to his building society a £373,000 loan from fellow Minister Geoffrey Robinson. Mere mortals might well have ended up in court from that double pecadillo, while Mandy was merely put out to grass for a while in his subterranean feeding-ground.

Then, after his mate Tony Blair brought him back and gave him another ministerial portfolio, he was banished anew in 2001 for allegedly nudging a fellow minister to grant a British passport to an Indian billionaire.

Surely that was it for Mandy’s career in public life. But no. Again he resurfaced - led from the underworld by a Prime Minister determined to play Hermes to his Persephone. This time, Blair decided that Mandy was probably better off out of the country and despatched him to Brussels as “our” European Trade Commissioner.

What did Mandy know about international trade? Probably not much more than would occupy the backside of a postage stamp; but that hardly mattered. All he needed to fulfil his role was to answer ”free trade” to every question; after which he could get on with adding more filthy rich names to his address book.

He had not been long on the job before we learned that he was spending time with Russia’s richest man, Oleg Deripaska, on the latter’s super yacht off Corfu. By coincidence, Deripaska’s company - Rusal - had recently benefited from a lowering of European tariffs on aluminium, a decision allegedly sanctioned by “our” European Trade Commissioner.

When Gordon Brown mounted the political throne after Blair’s resignation, no one - least of all perhaps Brown himself - thought Mandy would reappear on the political stage. The two intensely disliked each other, didn’t they? Not enough apparently to overcome Brown’s fear that without Mandy he would lose the next election, nor Mandy’s unquenched desire for the robes and dispensations of office (one is hideously reminded of Lear’s acerbic comment that a dog’s obeyed in office).

After such impressive resurrections, a casual observer might wonder if Mandy truly does possess special faculties. By reputation he has a razor-sharp mind and near miraculous powers of electoral campaign management. Baffingly to this writer, the press seem happy to describe him as the cleverest and most competent cabinet minister of his generation, so clever, indeed, as to have signally failed in every ministerial position he has occupied while evidently leaving behind a quite opposite impression. Similarly, he basks in credit for the glorious New Labour victory of 1997 of which he was reportedly the architect, while escaping any responsibility for the subsequent decline of New Labour’s popularity and the disastrous campaign of 2010 which he oversaw.

Skill of a kind is certainly needed to take all available praise for success while avoiding any blame for failure; or if not skill, then perhaps a sublime indifference to the world beyond oneself. It took the dismal electoral defeat of 2010 to raise doubts about Mandy’s continuing value to Labour, and then a new leader to suggest that the noble lord might usefully consider a dignified retirement.

Not that anyone could expect a man of Mandy’s recuperative qualities to heed such advice. News that he is to embark on a new career as an international business consultant should come as no surprise. What might raise our eyebrows in admiration is that his brand new firm - Global Counsel LLP - has received backing from WPP, the media and communications giant headed by the brilliant, mercurial Sir Martin Sorrell. Let us note, in passing, that Sir Martin was recently appointed to David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group. At this elevated level of money-making, there’s no such thing as political affiliation: everyone, deep down, is a cross dresser.

What exactly do international business consultants do? Basically, they come in two varieties. The first - let’s call them the workers - help companies develop new business in other countries. They conduct market research, find plant locations, negotiate local regulations, raise finance, identify partners and senior personnel, source materials and other inputs, estimate investment requirements and profit expectations and so on. Given that Lord Mandelson has no experience in any of these activities, we may assume that he does not belong among the workers. Consultants of the second kind - let’s call them the aristocrats - essentially do very little. I was about to write “nothing” , but that would be doing them an injustice. Their principle occupation is in introducing business executives to politicians, and politicians to business executives; and their main instrument of work - in fact their only one - is that address book. It is not a very energetic occupation, but it can be very lucrative. This is because many of the world’s large contracts - for example, the building of power stations, or dams, or highways, or the supply of military hardware, are in the gift of ministers, potentates, kings, and dictators. Here we may picture Mandy in his element, conversing on the telephone with the Chief Executives of multinationals, rubbing shoulders with princes and their consorts at cocktail parties, dining with plutocrats in Beijing and Moscow - and offering not to secure deals, which would require perhaps too much effort - but to put them in touch with someone who can.

Mandy may expect to make a handsome living as this second variety of consultant. No doubt WPP will also benefit, though to what extent we may only speculate, for the doors that Mandy opens will remain closed to common humanity. We can only fantasize about what takes place behind them, just as tabloid readers of the sixties fantasized about the antics of Ms Rice Davies and her pretty pal Christine Keeler. There is a difference, however. Mandy Rice Davies was nothing if not transparent about her motives and her tastes, whereas Lord Mandelson, true to his nicknames, seems ever to dwell in the shadows, famous but not quite visible, like a spirit of the night.