How to buy your way into the British establishment

Money isn't quite everything. But it's getting there

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

‘Money has won,’ Martin Amis said this week, promoting his BBC4 programme Martin Amis’s England on telly this Sunday. The class gulf has disappeared, he said, replaced by a money society.

It’s a little more complicated than that. Class differences are still stonkingly obvious in this country, whenever you open your mouth or put your clothes on in the morning. But it’s never been easier, or quicker, to hurtle up the class ladder by the deft application of huge amounts of money.

Britain may still ostensibly be a monarchy, but what it really is is an oligopoly, run by the oligoi — Ancient Greek for the few. And increasingly the oligoi — and not just the Russian oligarchs — are very, very rich indeed.

The old elite, including the monarchy and the political parties, aren’t quite broke yet, but they are desperate to shore up their assets. And the new billionaires on the block have never had so much money to give away, or so many reasons to give it away in return for power, preferment and a seat at the top table.

If you want to eat above the salt, it’s just a question of getting your chequebook out. This week, the Telegraph revealed that the bargain basement starting price is £150,000. That will buy you an EU passport in Bulgaria, and all the rights to work and residency across the EU that come with it.

But money can take you much higher up the batting order than that. Last week, Prince Andrew hosted, and paid for, a dinner at Buckingham Palace for Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, and 20 senior bankers from HSBC, JP Morgan, Barclays and the financial services group ICAP. Last autumn, he hosted another dinner for the American bank JP Morgan at Buckingham Palace. Among the guests was the patron saint of freeloaders, Tony Blair.

In theory, the evening made no profit. The palace said that JP Morgan paid an undisclosed fee for food, drink and the venue. And the bank said that it made charitable donations to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the English National Ballet, who entertained the guests.

But, even if no one made any money, it’s hard to avoid the glaring impression that big money now opens the grandest of doors. Corporate hospitality is fast becoming a gilt-edged cottage industry for the monarchy. Last summer, Prince Andrew — again — hosted a mega-thrash at Windsor Castle for internet entrepreneurs.

But it’s not just Prince Andrew who’s at it. His older brother will be delighted to break bread with you if your bank account is bulging at the seams. Last November, an Indian private equity tycoon, Cyrus Vandrevala, and his wife, Priya, donated half a million pounds to pay for Prince Charles’s 65th birthday party at Buckingham Palace. It all sounds very cosy: Cyrus got to sit next to Camilla; Priya sat next to Charles.

Pay enough money and the thickest of embossed invitations — with that loveliest of franking marks on the envelope, EIIR — will come fluttering through your letterbox. In 2011, it emerged that the huge Spanish tiling company Porcelanosa paid for a significant proportion of the costs of a dinner at Buckingham Palace hosted by Prince Charles. And hey presto, the head of Porcelanosa, Manuel Colonques, and his wife, Delfina, were promptly asked to Prince William’s wedding.

But you can get much more than invitations if you spend the money in the right places. Political parties — whose membership has plummeted to 2 per cent of the population — are mustard keen on your donations. Particularly if, like the Lib Dems, your poll rating has halved in recent years.

You’d have thought any sensible billionaire would have better things to spend his hard-earned millions on than the Lib Dems. A gin palace, a chilled bottle of Krug, a tepid glass of Pinot Grigio… Surely they deliver more pleasure than a low-temperature evening with Nick Clegg’s stunningly dreary inner circle?

But for all their Mogadon tendencies and their collapsing ratings, the Lib Dems do have one last shot in their locker: they maintain a disproportionate hold on modern political power.

The founder of the UK franchise of Domino’s Pizza, Rumi Verjee, certainly found the Lib Dems engaging enough to donate £770,000 to the party. And last September he became Baron Verjee of Portobello.

There’s no suggestion of any impropriety on Lord Verjee’s part or of any connection between the donation and the peerage. But the sandal-wearing, tofu-chewing Lib Dems do seem surpassingly keen on donning a dinner jacket and shaking down other squillionaires, with a blind eye to the possible source of the money. They took £2.4 million from Michael Brown, the fraudster financier, to fight the 2005 election. Their blind eyes must have been on stalks — that was ten times the biggest donation they’d ever received before from any individual.

Last month, the Indian arms dealer Sudhir Choudhrie and his son, Bhanu, who both deny any wrongdoing, were arrested by the Serious Fraud Office in connection with alleged bribery by Rolls Royce. The Choudhrie family have given more than £1 million to the Lib Dems and in return Sudhir Choudhrie has been entertained — if that’s the right word — by Nick Clegg at Chevening, his grace-and-favour country house in Kent. The Lib Dems have also put forward his name for a peerage in the past.

There’s no suggestion of any direct illegal connection between donations and peerages. If you want that sort of thing, you have to go back to the days when the Liberals were in real power under Lloyd George. It was Lloyd George’s honours broker, Maundy Gregory, who flogged knighthoods for £10,000 and baronetcies for £40,000.

But at least that was considered enough of a scandal to lead to a change in the law and the passing of the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act of 1925.

These days, it is openly acknowledged that money is the oil that greases the wheels of power and sends you flying to the top of the tree. And if you’ve been caught up in something unwholesome in your home country, don’t worry: British doors are flung open wide to anyone who can afford the trifling price of non-dom status.

Somerset Maugham called the French Riviera a sunny place for shady people. Well, Britain has become a shady place for shady people, as long as they’re prepared to stump up the entrance fee. Give enough of the folding stuff away and all sins are forgiven. And you don’t have to be a foreigner to rehabilitate your reputation through the all-redeeming power of money. Gerald Ronson, jailed for his part in the Guinness share-trading scandal, was given a CBE in 2012 for his charitable donations.

In the film Wall Street, Gordon Gekko didn’t quite say ‘Greed is good.’ What he actually said was ‘Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.’ And his words are spot on in modern Britain if, instead of ‘greed’, you substitute the better words, ‘Making shedloads of money and giving a proportion of it away.’ Who cares what you do with your right hand as long as your left hand donates some of the proceeds to a good cause? These days, Gordon Gekko would be savvy enough to build up the Gekko Charitable Foundation to slip a cosy veneer over the money-making machine whirring away behind the facade.

Lots of dodgy billionaires do it these days: start a charity ball; rescue a crumbling building; subsidise an ailing sport — whatever takes your fancy and sounds nice and selfless, as long as it’s suitably prominent. Nothing washes whiter than a big charitable donation.

Of course, some zillionaires are just straightforwardly philanthropic. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett must be praised for their massive charitable donations, but should they really become some of the most revered people alive as a result? In a YouGov poll this January, Gates was voted the most admired person on the planet, and Warren Buffett the eighth most admired. Barack Obama came second; Vladimir Putin third, although his ratings might have slumped a little in recent weeks. Poor Pope Francis came fourth, and the Dalai Lama 13th.

Good for Gates and Buffett for giving away so much. But they still remain rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Is an extremely rich man who gives away a chunk of his money really that much more admirable than a poor man who gives away a larger proportion of his?

Big money has a dazzling, hypnotic effect all its own, with a particularly magical power over other rich men. At a 2011 concert in Seattle, that skilled tax avoider Bono said a special thank you to Bill and Melinda Gates. ‘Thanks for your passion, your brain power and your cash, actually,’ Bono said.

The pop star was joking, but his choice of words was serendipitous. Without the booster effect of big cash, real virtues — like intelligence, selflessness and altruism — are starved of attention.

All praise, too, to the hedge-funder Arpad Busson, whose ARK charity has raised millions of pounds for health, education and child protection across the world. It’s not his fault that a good way of raising money these days is to have grand parties at Kensington Palace with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, drawing in the hedge-fund kings, who’ll cheerfully spend £5,000 on raffle tickets and and a quarter of a million for a weekend at Blenheim Palace.

But it’s another example of how big money tears down barriers — and how quiet, unadvertised acts of charity seem increasingly dated. St Francis of Assisi wouldn’t have got very far these days. The silly friar gave away his father’s entire silk fortune. What sort of public platform would that have given him now?

‘Pecunia non olet’ — ‘Money doesn’t smell’ — the Emperor Vespasian said of the urine tax he levied from the produce of public urinals, sold on to Roman tanners and launderers. It’s true. Any money spent in a good cause is hard to attack; although I’m not sure whether the Liberal Democrats are ever the best of causes.

But that doesn’t mean having lots of money is in and of itself a shining, laudable virtue that opens any door in the land. Money may not smell bad, but it shouldn’t smell as sweet as it does in modern Britain.

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Show comments
  • Tanya Gold

    Brilliant piece.

  • john

    A money based establishment is OK. Britain’s problem is its centuries old class based establishment. The former will change decade by decade, the latter hangs on for ever. In the US, the “establishment” is very flexible, in the UK it is fixed.

    • tjamesjones

      so true, it’s not as if the next prez election will be between a clinton and possibly a bush! US is a meritocracy not some dynastic state!

    • balance_and_reason

      Rubbish…..just look at the facts. seriously , what a crass generalisation. So some of the aristocracy persevere and educate themselves and fight on , so what; the majority of wealth and influence is newly created and so the cycle continues to turn. Long may that continue; a little continuity is great, no sane person would want a complete revolution every 100 years with all thats been built and learnt burnt down, to be replaced by a new politbureau. You’ve been watching too much Downton Abbey.

      • john

        You’re obviously unaware of the monarchy, House of Lords and other titled old farts? Not to mention the upper echelons of the law, military, politics, Oxbridge and other sought after professions. We have had a social order that has changed very little in a couple of centuries.
        Your reference to Downton is very telling – I’ve never seen it and would be seriously irritated by it.
        Of course, the wealth is created by scruffy tradesmen but the real power centers remain firmly in the hands of a traditional elite. Britain is a class-driven society and this is a crippling obstacle in the long term. I wish more of the great unwashed would get the message.

        • balance_and_reason

          Every country in the world has class issues, from the States to India and China; you are living in La La land if you think thats escapable. The monarchy has value and limited political power, a lot of soft power but mostly for good. The aristocracy is decimated compared to 50 years ago and the wealth they control is a lot less than you dream of; a lot is tied up in land and therefore not accessible. The vast majority of moveable wealth is held by the aggregate middle classes, and that is a very broad category today, and I seriously advise you to study some statistics, not the socialist workers depot, just to get a few of these numbers nailed down. Scruffy tradesmen indeed, you are living in the thirties my friend. I guess that would tally with your ludicrously outdated socialist ideals….did you not realise that that the rest of the world has moved on…including Russia, China and Sweden. Shave the beard, ditch the sandals, get on the bike and join the modern world my friend…Bob Crow is dead.

          • john

            A lot of silly bluster but no real response. Does the monarchy still exist? Does the House of Lords still exist? They do – they are an insult to every self-respecting British citizen who wants equal opportunity in his own country.

          • balance_and_reason

            I suspect your world is very narrow, grey, and joyless. Yes those institutions are still there, but hugely evolved over the years. Constant small evolution is the proper way to run any large system. Revolutions produce tragedy and the modern world is too complex to plan from a little red book…..truly socialism is so last century.

          • john

            I agree. Let’s see some “Constant small evolution” and send the royals and the HoL packing. Both have long outlived their usefulness and – after 1000 years – Britain needs to evolve into a full democracy.

          • balance_and_reason

            we have only been a partial democracy for a couple of hundred years, for women, less than 100 years of voting, as we have seen from Iraq, Libya, Zimbabwe,et al….democracy needs to be fed in very slowly whilst the culture alters to be ready for it.

          • john

            Not sure we fit in with the countries you quote!
            Britain always does everything too slowly and your timescale is glacial. Let’s move ahead!

          • balance_and_reason

            Not everyone can keep up with the metropolitan elite such as yourself….a country must take all with it or the laggards will bite you in the arse! and they will be rougher, harder and nastier than the ‘civilised’ change merchants.

          • Fergus Pickering

            A full democracy like what? Like the USA? Like France? I prefer things as they are.

          • john

            No you don’t. Nobody willingly concedes their democratic rights to an authoritarian system. Don’t you feel capable of choosing a Head of State or an Upper Chamber?

        • Colonel Mustard

          And just where do Baroness Ashton and John Bercow fit in this brave new world of yours?

          The trouble with you revolutionaries is that you are only too willing to discard the great big chip on your shoulders and jump on the “establishment” gravy train when the opportunity is offered. So acutely tuned to survival is this great creaking wagon of privilege, nepotism and favours that those on board now talk the socialist talk if they aren’t already elevated from the collective left to exploit the very thing they profess to despise.

          You might not like titled old farts. I detest hypocrisy.

    • bootsyjam

      I must disagree John. Peter Oborne’s The Triumph of the Political Class shows that the Establishment is over. Of course they still hold money and decent positions, but the scourge of the Political Class is equally as dangerous, and they are taking on the mannerisms of hte Establishment e.g. family political dynasties (Kinnock and so many others) along with politically inter connected marriage (Clegg and his wife to name one).

      • john

        I love your phrase: “Of course they still hold money and decent positions” – pretty much gives your case away.
        You’re getting caught in the weeds – the usual fate of anybody who thinks about the establishment. The political families you mention are just tiny and ultimately meaningless examples of an establishment. They will fade away.

        But the nobility, monarchy and many of its hangerson have been around for decades (centuries) and will not fade away unless the rest of us do something to demand our democratic rights.

        • Alexandrovich

          If this is your gap year, read Fame Is The Spur.

          • bootsyjam

            Gap year ahahahahahaha

        • bootsyjam

          Well as the Political Class haven’t faded away yet have they? It’s all about power-both the Establishment and the Political Class want to wiled it, and the Political Class is wielding it right now. And peopole who gain power don’t tend to want to give it up once they have it do they. And as the Political Class still control economic policy across the globe, are in the IMF, UN and other unaccountable transnational (and national) government bodies, can start wars at will, ruin economies with money printing, set punitive tax rates, regulate and shut down freedom and freedom of speech, I’d quite like to deal with that problem thanks.

          You make it sound easy that they will ‘fade away.’ Pray do tell how exactly. They have people addicted to sucking at the teat of the State, and scared of terrorism in order to justify repressive laws, and continue to support their corporate chums/paymasters via too big to fail and QE. And they control the police and the military.

          So tell me, how will they ‘fade’ away?

        • bootsyjam

          Like I said-read that book, it will open your eyes to facts as opposed to ignorant opinion.

  • justejudexultionis

    So true. The UK (and London in particular) is whoring itself out to the highest bidder.

    • balance_and_reason

      Its always been the case; Ever wondered why so many of the aristocracy married American industrialist’s daughters in the last century?
      Plenty of home grown rich industrialists in this country slotted their way in as well over the last 200 years….thats living in the real world folks.

  • Gwangi

    Would this be the stinking rich Martin Amis whose stinking rich father sent him to private school and not the local schools in South Wales where he was born and spent his early years?
    Yes, those who do not have money and connection do suffer disadvantage, have always suffered that, and always will.

    But please spare us the lectures from the rich and privileged pompous literati – who, in my experience, haven’t got a clue about the real world (and you can add academics and many politicians to that list).

    Yes, we know that unless you went to a posh school and have a rich father (a la Louis Theroux, Adam and Joe etc) you’ll find it hard to have the luxury of working in the media (because that has become the 1st choice of hobby job of the privileged classes, much as working in the Empire used to be).

    Many of us have personal experienced of this, as we see mediocre rich and well-connected people getting breaks in the media, TV, BBC etc when far more talented people don’t even get a look in.
    But hey, that’s life. Try and work your way round it.

    But what we really do not need is lectures from the likes of Martin Amis (who is quite possibly the most over-rated and boring writer in English alive).

    And forget those who can afford to be socialists too, because of their privileged upbringing and wealth (Tony Benn etc), no matter how eloquent their speeches.

    • GraveDave

      Martin Amis (who is quite possibly the most over-rated and boring writer in English alive).

      So that’s it. You’re a failed writer.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I don’t think Kingsley Amis was stinking rich. All the money he had he earned, most of it from writing novels. When Martin was little, Kingsley was quite pooor.

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    “Britain’s image abroad is in absolute disintegration”
    — Not good, is it? So what are we going to do about it?

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    The rot had already set in but it accelerated into complete moral collapse with the arrival of NuLabour.

  • bootsyjam

    And it all started under Major, accelerated under Blair and is now firmly established under Cameron. Can highly recommend The Triumph of the Political Class by Peter Oborne.

  • alexander

    Britain is a corporatocracy staffed by the aristocracy masquerading as a meritocracy

  • Fergus Pickering

    Money has always been able to buy class. Most peerages were bought.

    • Kitty MLB

      Even a lowborn fellow like you can call yourself Lord Pickering
      or if you prefer 5th Viscount of Pickering ( that one has an edge)
      All somewhat vainglorious and Americans do that all the time.
      One can buy themselves a title but not class. Yet it is possible
      to obtain distinction though education and have a title before a name
      or letters after a name.

      • Fergus Pickering

        I am descended from the Kings of Ireland, Kitty. You can’t do better than that.. When Brian Boru reigned the English were still in woad.

        • Kitty MLB

          I have done a little curtsy! I am In the presence of blue blood. Your majestic ancestor, I believe freed Ireland
          from the savage Vikings- and you would not want to
          bump into them on a dark night ! Good God, I am lost
          for words Fergus.