‘Stick it’: a last defence against the power of wealth

Two members of the working class were given walk-on parts this past week and, though both camera-shy, they performed a service. One, justifying every romantic socialist’s vision of what a proletarian should be, told a billionaire who had offered him £350,000 for a property which looked worth a fraction of that, to “shove his money up his arse”. The other, more in the respectable self-help tradition, emphasised personal dignity, arguing that if provided with a home by a housing trust, a tenant should be prepared to submit to inspections to ensure its cleanliness and upkeep – not, he said, something that would be now accepted because of “human rights and all that codswallop”.

Around these two voices, sticking up like the bones of forgotten beasts, were programmes about two different ways to live privileged lives. The good and the ugly.

The second way (Donald Trump: All-American Billionaire, BBC2 Sunday) is to take the privileges with which you were born and lever them up to obscene heights. Trump, the New York property developer, took his father’s construction business and made of it a business worth, he says, $6bn (other estimates are closer to $3bn: whatever). After near bankruptcy in the late 1980s, he came back (“too big to fail”) and now provides luxury to the luxurious. In one of his Trump towers reside both Steven Spielberg and Andrew Lloyd Webber. In his Westchester golf club – $300,000 to join, $20,000-a-year fee – lockers bear the names of Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Bill Clinton. Now, Trump has identified a strip of coast near Aberdeen, and intends to build another golf club there. One of his sons wore a kilt and Trump seemed to go nowhere in Scotland without attendant pipers, skirling away. His sister explained that “he wanted to do something in memory of his mother [an émigrée Scotswoman], and this is it”.

This will not be it if Michael Forbes, who has a small farm on the edge of the proposed development, holds his ground and keeps his indifference to a small fortune. Forbes’ smallholding is, Trump told a press conference, “a slum, and somebody should do something about it”. A brief panning shot of Forbes’ smallholding showed that Trump had a point, but it’s not his slum, nor business. Forbes has so far stuck with “Stick it”: he has the support of the Greens and some actors and comics. Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University gave Trump an honorary doctorate, causing a former recipient to hand back his own.

The film, presented by Emily Maitlis, adopted a familiar “wow!” approach dusted with cynicism lite – ending with a shot of the Trump family, having apparently watched the piece, finding it good. So they should: it was a tribute, more or less, to the power of positive greed. To be sure, which university can pass up a billionaire? Who can sneer at jobs and investment? It sticks in the craw, though: the wallowing in wealth in a shrinking world, the adolescent flaunting of power, the vaunting of greed. “Stick it” is a poor thing, but a last defence, and once the show has been made you hope it would hold.

It wasn’t different in the 19th century. Wealth was made in huge quantities by the most talented and ruthless of the newly powerful middle class, and their flaunting can still be seen in Gothic piles or city mansions, and is captured by Dickens and Trollope, Gaskell and Galsworthy. But from their ranks came – according to Ian Hislop (Age of the Do-Gooders, BBC2 Mondays) – a moral revolution, carried on the earnest and tireless backs of William Wilberforce (anti-slavery and political reform), Robert Owen (improvement of factory conditions), Thomas Wakley (campaign against quackery in medicine), George Dawson (municipal reform), Charles Trevelyan (civil service reform) and Octavia Hill (for decent working-class housing). As the Archbishop of Canterbury put it, “these people believed we are answerable for the condition of our neighbour”.

Hislop promised a thick dusting of the cynicism necessary to profess if you are editor of Private Eye, but apart from some business with a top hat, he yielded to simple admiration. These reformers set in place much of what we think of as civic and decent in Britain; yet, as the archbishop also said, they were not sentimentalists – “they were not in it to make themselves feel better”. They expected the objects of their concern to shape up and live moral lives. Hence James Powell and his “human rights codswallop”: as a beneficiary in one of Octavia Hill’s model estates for working people, he felt he had entered into a contract, and his side of it included allowing the landlord to check that he was worthy. Powell’s respectability and Forbes’ defiance are part of the same ethical continuum: the first recognising the need to keep a bargain, the second recognising one whose bargain had to be resisted for the sake of a moral order, even if it was on its way out.

Frankie Boyle’s Tramadol Nights and The Morgana Show (C4 Tuesdays) are back-to-back vehicles for two obscene comedians, the second of whom is funny and the first rarely so. Morgana Robinson is a talented chameleon, whose conjuring up of contemporary characters pushes parody, sometimes, into an absurd brilliance. Boyle’s sketches misfire badly: the stand-up in between, all verbal aggression and directionless rage, has fine flashes – as in his anti-Vatican jokes that could only come from a lapsed and angry Catholic.


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