Lesley Riddoch - Elitist yacht-loving politicians are sailing in dangerous waters

JAMES Bond has a lot to answer for. Every film features power, mayhem and seduction aboard a yacht.

Clearly, young George Osborne, David Cameron, and Peter Mandelson took these celluloid messages over-fondly to heart. Without the glamorising influence of 007 these Brits would know their place when it comes to the sea. And that place is on their knees – humble, respectful, clutching life jackets, waterproof clothing and membership of the RNLI.

But these chaps are to sailing what Shellsuit Bob is to a marathon. Perfect strangers.

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They are men more familiar with the inside of the cinema than the reality of the British coast. So the image of tinted glass, powerful engines, seclusion and serviced sea-borne sex is not tempered by any kind of reality check. You see Bond-lovers like them on holiday in the Mediterranean. They're the folk chugging along in lookalike boats without sails (no-one knows how to use them) with miserable expressions and six square feet in which to live, breathe and argue. But a yachting holiday always seems like a good idea because they do it. The rich people with beautiful friends.

The allure is so strong that sensible politicians in particular are drawn like moths to a flame. Tired of the endless round of soirees, surgeries, meetings and seminars. Tired of the irritating caveats presented by civil servant types after each bold, new policy suggestion. Tired of the small thinking of colleagues. Tired of the constituents. Tired of the constant sniping from the press and even the luxury hotel room extras that no longer excite. Tired of appearing powerful but feeling ... expendable. Why wouldn't Pete, Dave and George find it easier to relate to the men in super-yachts?

And so this summer, after years of cycling in the rain and re-using Waitrose poly bags to prove their membership of the wider human race, top Tories were at last invited again to join that shaken-not-stirred, private yacht-going class – and they succumbed. It was tempting and dangerous. Just like a James Bond movie. Several leading Labour ministers had lost their jobs after dodgy donation scandals. And opinion polls suggested the public still didn't buy the Tories conversion to the cause of the ordinary Joe and Josephine. But all eyes were on Gordon Brown. Surely no-one would notice or object if they just ...

So off they went – David in a private jet to Rupert Murdoch's yacht off Santorini and George and Pete to the floating Fort Knox that houses Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. They had champagne they could have sipped in the Commons, canaps with strange fillings and loos smaller than the cubicles on Scotrail trains. But this was luxury – not because of the fittings, food or furniture but because of the complete exclusion of those flea-like irritants, the press and the public. Bliss.

And that's the real damage wrought by Yachtgate. The enduring perception that our leaders prefer the company of rich foreigners to us – their ain folk.

No-one would have known about all this if George Osborne hadn't started blabbing about his unlikely yachting companion, Peter Mandelson. But then loose talk is what a super-yacht visit is all about – for the hangers- on anyway. Unfortunately for him, the revelation has prompted difficult questions.

If there is no such thing as a free lunch, how much less free is a luxury lunch on a super- yacht? And how can you discuss a donation without soliciting one? Is this the Tory equivalent of smoking cannabis but not inhaling? The media focus this weekend switched to Peter Mandelson, who cut taxes on aluminium after meeting the super-yacht owning aluminium magnate first time around. Of course, everyone loves to hate Mandy – some of that is down to sheer homophobia. But if opinion polls are correct, it's the behaviour of the next chancellor we should worry about.

If Yachtgate seems like a fuss about nothing, consider where George Osborne's over-familiarity with powerful, private donors might lead. The hopefully outgoing Republican administration in the US has tied itself to companies encouraging oil dependency, gas guzzling, climate-change, war in Iraq, the arms race and the irresponsible lending that's caused global economic meltdown.

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The super-rich have an aversion to the bright light of scrutiny that illuminates the public domain. And if they pass that on to politicians, the desire to avoid contact with the electorate creates an elite, exclusive culture which can spread through a political party like a virus. It's evident in humble Fife where Labour minders have created an extraordinary Public Private Partnership whereby Gordon Brown speaks privately to supportive voters whilst the public looks on. That won't wash as long as Alex Salmond's doing precisely the opposite. The SNP has some explaining to do in Glenrothes over its council's apparent failure to deliver on local services. But swaying voters won't care if they've actually met the Boss. On their stamping ground, not his. In the bingo hall, down the shops. Beyond the network of minders and pre-selected supporters currently being paraded by Labour in lieu of genuine public encounters.

What is so scary about meeting the public? And why should anyone elect people who would rather not speak to them?

The most unhappy, discontented societies are not the poorest, but the ones with the greatest social division. Dipping into the exclusive world of the super-rich leads politicians inexorably towards acceptance of a divided society – the haves, have nots and have yachts. And that's not just purism or envy speaking.

The only thing that makes hard times palatable is the belief that everyone is facing them. Universal rationing during the last war created cohesion and helped people overcome adversity. The sight of politicians hob-nobbing with the rich on super-yachts does precisely the opposite. No matter how many voters queue to watch Daniel Craig this Friday.