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WHO are the barons ? Here we are, in the 21st century, and the answer to that 11th-century sounding question will decide whether we go on with stagnating pay, homelessness and fractured, fragmented public services or start to divert money from the rich back to the rest of society. To make that change, we need to know who the barons are.
Chancellor Philip Hammond raised the baron question in his Tory conference speech. Hammond simultaneously apologised to super-rich Tory financial backers for not winning the election, and attacked trade unions.
Hammond said: “I want to thank our financial supporters as well. We need your support more than ever as the union barons mobilise their power behind Corbyn.
“Whether it was time or money, I know you all invested a great deal in the 2017 election and I am sorry we were not able to deliver the result we all hoped for.”
In Hammond-world, there are horrible, feudal sounding “union barons” and nice wealthy Tory donors.
Calling someone a “baron” implies they have unearned, and undemocratic power, which they use to squeeze money out of the poor peasants.
The word conjures up images of powerful men in castles who oppress the citizenry, by virtue of titles from the king and men with swords.
It’s an odd term to use to describe trade union leaders because, even if union democracy is imperfect, they get their jobs by being elected.
The “high net worth” Tory donors never got elected to anything; they rule by their money, titles and use of the law.
If we misidentify the barons, we end up fighting among ourselves, while the Chancellor and his friends laugh in the great hall behind the battlements.
But I think there are some hopeful signs about baron-identification.
I searched a database of Britain’s national newspapers. Over the past 12 months, the misleading but much-loved phrase “union baron” was used 230 times in the national press.
By contrast, another popular phrase, “press baron” was used just 91 times. “Press barons” hold undemocratic power, and indeed some of them have titles.
The Barclay brothers, David and Frederick, are the owners of the Daily Telegraph and literally live in a mock-gothic castle on a channel island with semi-feudal laws. How could they be more baronial?
So it is not right that elected union officials get called barons more than press bosses. But given the press barons run the media, perhaps not that surprising.
But I was pleased to see another, older baron-phrase is making a comeback.
In the last 12 months, the phrase “robber baron” was used 70 times in national newspapers. That’s less than “union baron,” but far more than in previous years.
“Robber baron” is a phrase that was used in the late 19th and early 20th-century United States to describe the new super-rich, such as the Astors, Carnegies and Vanderbilts, the industrialists and financiers who squeezed society by monopoly, sharp practice, political influence.
Some of the press campaigners who used the “robber baron” phrase, the “muckrakers” who dug up the dirt on the super-rich, actually helped change society. They contributed to the demand for social reform that saw monopolies broken up, and finally through the New Deal of the 1930s saw real social reform.
Post 2008-crash, the phrase is coming back into fashion. Words shape how we see our world and if we get our baron-spotting wrong, we won’t see the right shapes and we’ll continue to act and get treated like a bunch of peasants.
So, when Hammond apologised to his “financial donors” for not winning the election, who was he apologising to?
Just a cursory look down the Tory donor list, and you quickly find people who actually have archaic titles and a lot of money.
So Alexander Andrew Macdonell Fraser, Lord Fraser of Corriegarth, gave the Tories £100,000 in 2017. After a long career in banking Lord Fraser has settled down as “a global investor based in London.”
He is a director of Asia Frontier Capital, a financial firm investing in “high growth Asian frontier economies,” including Vietnam and Iraq.
The Register of Lords Interests says he has many big personal UK shareholdings. He has around 50 “registrable” shareholdings (each must be greater than £50,000, so that is a minimum of £2.5 million in total).
They include shares in John Laing Infrastructure Fund Ltd, a company that squeezes money out of NHS hospitals and state schools through Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deals.
Sir Henry Angest was knighted in 2015. He controls a firm called Flowidea, which since 2001 has given the Tories around £2.5m.
That and his service as Tory Treasurer all helped Sir Henry get knighted. His firm gave the Tories £300,000 in 2017.
Sir Henry runs a “private bank” called Arbuthnot Banking Group, offering services to the very rich. Up until 2015 Arbuthnot also owned, through various subsidiaries, a bank for poor people, called “Everyday Loans.” This high street loans company charged those poor people interest rates running at an APR of around 74 per cent.
Michael Freeman doesn’t have a title. But he does have a lot of money. He has given the Tories £750,000 since 2007. He gave the Tories £100,000 for the 2017 election. He founded property developers Argent, and still has a place on the board.
Argent are often seen as one of the “better” property developers. But they still push to create more luxury and less social housing.
Argent are the main developer on the massive £2 billion redevelopment of Kings Cross, which will have valuable shops and offices and around 2,000 homes.
In return for planning permission, Argent promised 43 per cent of the houses on the site would be “affordable.” Many of these wouldn’t be on “full” social rents , but “intermediate” rents, which are lower than commercial rents, but still not cheap.
However, in 2015 they went back to the council and said they wanted to reduce that to about 33 per cent “affordable” homes.
They said they could only make enough money by building more high-end flats. The government likes to leave housing to “market-led” solutions like those of Michael Freeman’s firm. Which is why we are in a housing crisis.
Solomon Hughes writes every Friday in the Morning Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sol_Hughes_Writer
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