Joyce McMillan: Powerful circles serving themselves

The Camerons and the Obamas wave for the cameras. Picture: Getty
The Camerons and the Obamas wave for the cameras. Picture: Getty
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THE Camerons’ visit to the White House illustrates the gulf between our rulers and the rest of us, writes Joyce McMillan

BY ALL accounts, this week’s visit to Washington by David and Samantha Cameron has been an unusually glamorous affair, all spring sunshine in the Rose Garden, long red carpets, and ranks of servicemen in dress uniform forming guards of honour. There was the boys’-night-out trip to Ohio, where the President and the Prime Minister watched a game of basketball. There was the fashion face-off between Mrs Cameron and Mrs Obama, effortlessly won by the elegant Michelle.

And there was Wednesday’s grand White House dinner, with a guest list crammed with celebrities. Britons honoured with an invitation included Sir Richard Branson, Tracey Emin, Apple designer Jonathan Ive, posh folk-rock group Mumford & Sons, and – in what I hope was a tweak of White House irony – the actor Hugh Bonneville, who, as the aristocratic but kindly Lord Grantham in television costume drama Downton Abbey, plays the fictional character immortalised as David Cameron’s alter ego in one of the best Private Eye covers of the last half-decade.

In truth, the backdrop to this visit could scarcely be more sombre, in Syria, in Iran, or – above all – in Afghanistan, where this week saw a catastrophic act of multiple murder by a rogue American soldier, and the deaths of six young British soldiers in a single roadside bombing. Since he became president, Barack Obama has been drawn into a culture of military threats against the Iranian nuclear programme which appals most well-informed observers; and even in Syria, no-one is completely ruling out another armed intervention.

Yet even the pain of those bereaved in this week’s Afghan disasters is not enough, it seems, to dampen the spirits of president and Prime Minister, as they party together on Pennsylvania Avenue. One paper naughtily described the PM as wearing his hair in “a puffy bouffant”, and looking “as radiant as a young bride”, as he basked in the warmth of the president’s welcome; other British journalists simply fawned, pointing out with evident self-satisfaction that the British Prime Minister was being received with more pomp and ceremony than some other heads of government.

And this whole spectacle of high-powered hospitality and entertainment in Washington provokes sombre thoughts about the ruling class we have made for ourselves, here in the west, and the behaviour we tolerate from them. Politicians, of course, are not the worst. They are not as well paid or as wealthy as the captains of finance and commerce who seek to buy their compliance. Most of them go into politics for idealistic reasons; and if they think of the voters who elect them as “muppets”, they are at least well advised – unlike the overpaid bankers of outfits like Goldman Sachs – to keep that view to themselves.

The problem, though, is that once our elected politicians reach the upper echelons of power, they automatically become – for all social purposes – part of a ruling class defined by wealth and celebrity. At one level, the Obamas might have hesitated to have been seen hob-nobbing so closely with the Camerons, this week of all weeks; David Cameron has barely bothered to deny the closeness of his social friendship with his old school chum Charlie Brooks and his wife Rebekah, both arrested this week on suspicion of obstructing the course of justice, in the News International phone-hacking scandal.

Yet in the upper reaches of our society, it seems to be taken for granted than wealth and power automatically trump such boring old considerations as morality, legality, or even character. The wealthy and influential recognise each other by their plumage – designer dresses, green wellies, the odd horse – and cleave to one another as birds of a feather. They party together, and do business as they party, while the rest of us stand with our grubby faces metaphorically pressed against their bullet-proof windows, like so many Victorian urchins; and whether they actually like or trust each other barely seems to matter, or to figure on their radar.

So when we see Samantha Cameron and Michelle Obama smiling at one another in official pictures, of course we are partly seeing two bright women playing a diplomatic game. Yet we are also seeing two people probably have far more in common with each other – in terms of the pressures they face – than with the remaining 99.99% of the population; we see mutual recognition, as well as high diplomacy, and some cultural difference.

And the same goes for the other aristocrats of wealth and fame bidden to the White House dinner. Whatever their many political and ideological differences, they are drawn together by the pressures and possibilities of wealth and power, on a scale that most of us will never know. Some of them try to use their influence for the common good, some are dedicated only to the defence of wealth and inequality; and some – like Samantha Cameron, with her strange fortysomething teenage look – seem in denial about the extent of their own power and privilege.

What is clear, though, is that they live in one world, and we live in another; and that a system of democracy devised so that the representatives of the people could challenge the whole structure of aristocratic power, now serves only to elevate a few elected officials into the ranks of an ever more detached and distant ruling class. Centre-left politicians like Barack Obama deny it, of course; he would say that these trappings of power and glamour do not affect the substance of his presidency.

Yet look at the clothes, look at the ceremony, look at the cost; look at the pathetic attempts, exposed this week, of Bashir Al-Assad of Syria and his wife to join the circle of big-spending world leaders.

Look at the recent history of intense and fawning social contact between British politicians and powerful backers, whose opinions could not be ignored. Look at the brotherly smiles with which Mr Obama greets a right-wing Prime Minister whose domestic policies should appal him; look at the misery on the ordinary faces of the mothers of the dead, here and in Afghanistan.

And then tell me that this self-contained world of social schmoozing and back-slapping among the privileged and powerful has no political meaning; and try to believe it if you like.