Riots and role models

by Matt Carr
Matt Carr’s Infernal Machine, March 29, 2012

The final report from the Riots Communities and Victims Panel established by the government to investigate the causes of last August’s riots  and their possible policy responses has just been published.  In addition to “poor parenting,” failing schools and social deprivation, the report describes commercialism and materialism as significant driving forces behind the riots, which it describes as

“…characterised by opportunistic looting, very much targeted at brands – 50 per cent of recorded offences in the riots were acquisitive in nature….the Panel was told that the majority of shops targeted stocked high value consumer products – clothes, trainers, mobile telephones and computers.”

These observations echo a report by the City Broker Tullet Brebon last August, which blamed the riots, in part, on an “out control consumerist ethos” and argued that  

“The dominant ethos of ‘I buy, therefore I am’ needs to be challenged by a shift of emphasis from material to non-material values.”

Faced with this dismal spectacle of brand-drenched consumerist youth,  we are fortunate to have a number of high-profile models who can provide a route towards a less materialistic culture and the community-based values and social responsibility that our ex-Etonian PM once identified as the hallmarks of the “big society.”

We might start with the 23 members of the 29-strong “cabinet of millionaires” who are worth at least £1 million, who have just awarded themselves and others in the same income bracket a big tax cut.  Like the 2nd Baron Strathclyde, Leader of the House of Lords, with a total fortune of £10 million, and a £2.3million house in Westminster.  And Defense Secretary Phil Hammond, who co-owns a £1million house in Westminster and a £400,000 home in Woking, Surrey, courtesy of his £6 m stake in the property company Castlemead.

Then there are our MPs, many of whom, as the  Telegraph described it, when the expenses scandal broke in 2009:

 “…used taxpayers’ money intended to cover the cost of running their constituency offices to buy everything from the latest technological gizmos to fridge magnets and gardening services. Eight ministers have claimed a total of more than £3,000 to pay for digital cameras and camcorders, while several have claimed for a bizarre array of other purchases.”

These include Roger Berry, former Labour MP for Kingswood, who claimed expenses at his designated second home in London on a Sony 26-inch LCD TV, a £250 on DVD player, a £1067.49 washer dryer, and a £574.28 dishwasher.

And Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield South East, who claimed £1,268 for carpets and £570 sofa bed; £689.99 for a television; £1,433.50 on decoration; £1,220 on furniture; and £1,135.20 on a bed.

And let’s not forget out our education secretary Michael Gove.  In a Parliamentary debate on the riots last August, Gove blamed the riots on “a culture of greed and instant gratification, rootless hedonism and amoral violence.”

Between 2005-07 Gove claimed £7,000 expenses on furnishing his north Kensington home, which included a £331 Chinon armchair,  a £493 Manchu cabinet,  a pair of elephant lamps for £134.50, a £750 Loire table,  a birch Camargue chair worth £432 and a birdcage coffee table for £238.50.

Makes Margaret Beckett’s £600 claim for hanging baskets and pot plants looks positively austere, doesn’t it?  Those who can be bothered can find a more extensive list of MPs here, though be warned:  the experience is a like watching one of those tedious digital shopping programmes in which an endless process of consumer goods rolls past accompanied by lists of prices.

Of course all this is rather petty stuff compared to the conspicuous consumption and commodity fetishism of the millionaires and billionaires who attracted by the UK’s status as a “residential tax haven” as one American economist once described it.   These people are in a different category altogether.

According to Business Week, the global super-rich like to spend their money “on sports teams, race horses, super yachts, rare automobiles, and wellness, such as ultra luxury home spas,”  and those who have made their home in the UK are no exception.

In 2008, the collective worth of the 1,000 individuals on the Sunday Times annual rich list rose by £53 billion to £412 billion despite the credit crunch.   They include the former Miss UK Kirsty Bertarelli and her pharmaceuticals tycoon husband, who last November launched a  new custom-built £100 million yacht.  And Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who last August bought his teenage daughter a £4 million “starter home” in Belgravia.

This kind of consumption tends to provoke awed oohing and aahing rather than condemnation in the British media.   In January last year the Sun regaled its readers – few of whom, one suspects,  are likely to be in the millionaire class – with a profile of “the world’s most expensive personal boat.”

According to its reporter the £700 million yacht  designed by a Derbyshire company will be a “floating version of billionaire’s playground Monaco” and will feature “scaled-down versions of the state’s famous landmarks, including the Monte Carlo Casino and racetrack.”

In September last year the Mail carried a similarly breathless profile of  a £300,000 Marazzi Design kitchen with 24 carat gold leaf and crocodile leather embossed finish, aimed at “confident social food lovers at the top end of the market who like to entertain and make a statement.”

Some of you might think that this is a little ‘materialistic.’ But you would be mistaken, because its designer Paul Marazzi has his mind on higher things:

“I feel a kitchen should have a soul and presence, transforming the room into an emotional experience, a celebration of family life and convivial living, transcending the kitchen into the heart and soul of the home.”

Sweet.  But such things are clearly not for everybody.    Nor are the handbags designed by the talented Samantha Cameron for the upmarket leather goods firm Smythson,  such as the Nancy, whose “hand-riveted, quilted calf leather inspired by traditional British upholstery, ruched pockets inspired by vintage luggage and vanity cases and beautifully bright satin linings,” sells for £700 to £870, and the £750 Maze, which the Telegraph describes as a “must-have for celebrities” this year.

So look and learn kids – or at least those of you who come from low-income backgrounds or “troubled families.”   Remember that material goods can’t buy happiness, status or prestige and that “values” are what really holds society together.

And once you understand that, perhaps you won’t need to go lusting after commodities that you can’t afford, and you can work selflessly towards the greater good, as so many of those at the pinnacle of society are already doing.


Posted in Consumers, Featured, Inequality & Class

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