Arab zillionaires and Mr Toad

This morning Robin Ramsay treated me to a cutting from the Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3518400/We-ve-sold-soul-desperate-dash-foreigners-cash-writes-RICHARD-LITTLEJOHN.html); a piece about rich Arab playboys in London, flaunting their gold-painted (or could it be -plated?) Lamborghinis, festooned with unpaid parking tickets, in the streets of Knightsbridge. Richard Littlejohn goes on to contrast this with the present plight of the steel workers in Port Talbot, Scunthorpe and elsewhere; and, more generally, to tie it in with (a) the problems of the housing market in London, with foreign ‘zillionaires’ pricing ordinary folk out of it; and (b) the more widespread recent trend of British industry’s falling into the hands of rich foreigners. Both of which are fair comments, and indicative of the deep problems facing Britain today.

The difficulty I have with Littlejohn’s take on this, however, is that his main target appears to be the Arabs who are exploiting the system, rather than the system itself: i.e. global free marketism run wild. That’s why ordinary Londoners (like my children) have to pay extortionate sums to live in little terrace houses; why the Port Talbot workers are in the position they are; why so many basic British industries – and Premier League football clubs – are now in the hands of shady foreign capitalists, bearing no responsibility to their local communities or even the national interest; and why social and economic inequality is reaching such a dangerous level now. But this would involve questioning present-day capitalism, and so isn’t as attractive a target to the Daily Mail as are evil sheiks with hooked noses (look at the cartoon illustrating Littlejohn’s article: remind you of anything?) driving around in their expensive cars, and the decadent Moslem cultures they are supposed to represent.

Littlejohn is also wrong to claim that this kind of thing has not been seen in Britain before. ‘At least the old British moneyed classes maintained a certain decorous restraint. OK, so they lived in grand townhouses and on country estates, but few ever flaunted their money in the faces of the hoi polloi’. Well, some did. (This is where I don my historian’s hat again.) ‘Flaunting’ was in fact a common charge laid against the nouveaux riches in Edwardian times, illustrated best in the character of Mr Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows: a well-known and much loved children’s story today, but intended by its author – a troubled banker in his professional life – as a cautionary tale warning of the provocative effect of all this showing off. Its climax features a battle between Toad and his cuddlier animal friends on the one side, and on the other the ‘stoats and weasels’ – i.e. the plebs – who have taken over his mansion while he has been disporting himself in his new car. Grahame’s Edwardian upper classes were terribly fearful of the activities of Toad and his like inciting Red revolution; a revolution which, incidentally, might well have come about had it not been for the First World War.

The hope for us on the Left now is that the sort of behaviour Littlejohn describes might provoke a similar reaction here in Britain. Littlejohn’s piece could be grist to the mill. On the other hand, it could also neutralise it. If the Mail has anything to do with it, it will not be the system that is made to suffer, but the toads. It’s been done before, in the 1930s, with the Jews, rather than the Arabs, playing the ‘toad’ role.

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