Gaddafi thought he was quids in, and then what happens? A spot of bother with some rebels in Benghazi, a faint suggestion that his regime might be in trouble (and that he might no longer be the go-to man for oil contracts) and ka-booom! The very Brits who have been oiling up to him are now flying sorties over Tripoli and trying to kill him and his family. Yes, Gaddafi must be feeling bitter about the whole thing; and, of course, he is not alone in being cynically courted, fawned over and feted by the British establishment, and then ruthlessly vilified and attacked. Compare the fate of Gaddafi with that of, say, Sir Fred Goodwin — and all the other bankers and super-rich excrescences of the capitalist system.
It was only a few years ago that government ministers, and indeed politicians of all parties, were engaged in a protracted cringe before the wealth-generating power of the Masters of the Universe. And the bankers, in turn, became quite used to the flattery. They were put on important task forces to improve the governance of the country. They were given knighthoods for services to banking. They would sit at posh dinners with politicians beside them behaving in the manner, let us be frank, of some seductive courtesan. “You so rich! Your hedge fund so massive! Me love you long time!” And now look at the bankers, and all the other “filthy rich” characters once shamelessly extolled by Peter Mandelson. Not a day goes by without their foxholes being bombed and re-bombed by the very politicians who once sought their favour.
The country is seemingly engaged in an extraordinary repudiation of free-market capitalism. I don’t think I am dreaming, but I have read recently two pieces, in this space, by some of the conservative journalists I admire the most. One said (forgive me if I summarise) that the Left had been right all along, and that the country was plainly run by a money-grubbing cabal.
The other said (I compress) that the bankers had caused the recent riots. A brace of brilliant new Tory MPs is today arguing that corporate decisions should be invigilated by some “public protagonist” to make sure they are in the interests of the country as a whole, and not just shareholders.
Whatever the merits of these points, they were not what these characters were saying only a few years ago about bankers or wealth creation. Of course, both these transformations in attitude — towards Gaddafi and the bankers – could be connected with the change in government. They might be all to do with the replacement of creepy sucky-up Labour by noble and fearless Tories.
A cynic might say, however, that if the revolution had not begun in Benghazi it is all too likely that the oiling to Gaddafi would have continued — because that was the British economic interest. And the same lesson applies, in reverse, to the currently despised capitalists.
Sooner or later the upswing will return, and since we are unlikely to find any real alternative to free market capitalism, there will be a new bull market and a new round of speculation and a new breed of super-rich; and as soon as most people feel richer, and the squeezed middle feels less vengeful — why then the politicians will be clustering around the money-makers again, like flies around a jam jar; and as soon as it is safe to do so, they will claim that it is in the national interest to encourage wealth creation, just as it was in the national interest to go for Gaddafi’s oil deals.
It may all sound reprehensible, but I am afraid it’s called politics.