The gathering of the political and business elite in Davos highlights a significant change that has occurred, not just in the corridors of power, but within the corporate boardroom. It’s the rise of an elite dedicated not to public service but the amassing of personal wealth and the protection of their riches.
Donald Trump epitomises it but he’s sadly joined by many others who seem to be in politics for personal gain and the guarding of their riches. The corporate equivalent has been highlighted by the Carillion collapse, disclosing an ethos of making a fast buck, not creating a successful business. What they can personally suck out of a firm, not what they can contribute for the wider benefit of shareholders and staff. It’s the rise of a modern kleptocracy. For sure there have always been people who have entered into politics and who have made a personal fortune.
Tony Blair is a recent example of that with a significant property portfolio and other trappings of wealth. Bill Clinton was a man from a humble background, who along with his wife, has amassed a considerable fortune. I’m no fan of Tony Blair and was concerned by many of Bill Clinton’s actions but I still don’t doubt they entered into public life with the best of intentions. Moreover, whilst in office I am certain that what drove them was their belief in what was right – even if I think it often misguided and occasionally catastrophic – not the accumulation of personal wealth.
Likewise, there have always been rich people who, having made their wealth, have decided to enter into politics. Michael Heseltine was a highly successful property developer and publisher before he entered the fray. Even more successful before making the transition, was Michael Bloomberg, who had acquired huge wealth through his business ventures before becoming Mayor of New York.
Both Heseltine and Bloomberg entered public life because of a commitment to making the world a better place, not to promote their business interests. Their business experience helped forge their political views, rather than their views being adapted to protect their business interests. Again, while I am no supporter of the political ethos of either, I don’t doubt their sincerity in either entering into politics or their actions within it.
Of course, throughout modern public life there have always been a few rogues and chancers who have entered into politics. Some such as Jonathan Aitken and Richard Nixon have been publicly shamed and punished for their activities. I still think though that both initially entered with the best of intentions and sadly fell from grace thereafter.
Aitken has spoken out on prisons since his conviction and sentence. He didn’t have to do that and his testimony has been appreciated by prison reformers. It seems genuine remorse. Nixon has always been someone that intrigued me. A good friend who has met every President since Eisenhower always surprised me by saying how he’d liked Nixon best of all. Partly, I sense this was because he spent time with him after his forced resignation from office and no doubt met a man humbled and raw. He did though also point out that Nixon had been planning a health care system – much akin to Barack Obama’s – before his removal from office, showing the political lurch to the right of US politics since the 70s.
Now, though, as with Trump, there are people who aren’t driven by political conviction but by the desire to further amass riches and protect their wealth. The suggestion in the book recently released about Trump’s tenure seems to ring true about him being an accidental President. Not expecting to win, entering the presidential race was actually about boosting his profile and business interests. Having won, it’s been about promoting his holiday resorts and rewarding his billionaire friends with tax cuts.
A few years ago, I dined with Wilbur Ross, who’s now Trump’s Commerce Secretary. When I met him, he was a billionaire with little political ambition other than indulging his trophy wife who had stood for office under the Republican banner. His intentions were further enrichment, as he disposed of the 10% share of the Bank of Ireland he’d acquired with Steve Forbes and circled other corporate prey. Now, he’s in Trump’s cabinet.
It’s a sad come-down for offices of state where many good and great people have served and also a threat to democracy itself. In Texas a few years ago I stayed with friends. The father of one of them had been President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign manager. On the way back from visiting the hill country, we stopped at “the Texas White House” – the ranch where Johnson would occasionally run the country from. Now a national park, it actually disclosed a great deal about the man.
He was from very humble origins, having grown up in a poor cabin in the grounds. As a teacher, he’d been active in the education of poor people before entering into political life. His wealth actually came from his wife Lady Bird who owned radio stations. Having not just visited his former homes but read Robert Dallek’s biography, I am impressed by him. Forever associated with the calamitous Vietnam War, he in fact drove through civil rights and sought to promote equality. He wasn’t flawless and my friend told me tales of his penchant for swearing like a trooper at staff in private, though that’s not reserved to politicians in the USA! His dreams, and America’s hopes, of a new society died on the battlefields of Vietnam. However, he was a man who entered into public office for the right reasons and strived to do the right thing when there. That’s now changed and not just in the USA, as there are signs of changes in the political arena at home. For many, entering into political office or corporations is now about acquiring wealth and protecting their riches. Democracy has been replaced by kleptocracy.