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The Observer: We should judge Gordon by the company he keeps

Jasper Gerard
Sunday March 25, 2007

Much muttering about the ‘Jewish money man’ from north London whose donations propelled a war-hungry champion of the transatlantic alliance into Downing Street.

How grateful we should be for his generosity in the face of the establishment’s ugly anti-semitism: I refer not to Lord Levy, but to Robert Waley Cohen. As chairman of Shell, he handed a fortune to Churchill in 1936 to fund his unofficial tilt at the premiership; without it, we might have been denied a leader to defeat Hitler.

But will we look back so fondly on another north London Cohen funding a leadership putsch? Sir Ronnie Cohen, private equity entrepreneur, wants Gordon Brown to move one door down the street. While his fellow tennis enthusiast Lord Levy executes his favourite shot – no, not the crafty backhander – before touching plutocrats for a couple of mill over a glass of Robinsons Barley Water, this comrade simply dips into his deep pockets for the Labour party.

Before we assess his role, we had better deal with the Jewish question. Any attempt to undermine Cohen due to religion would be as repugnant as Nazi sympathisers whispering about Waley Cohen. Yet it is also faintly distasteful to invoke religion to inoculate someone from all criticism and there is a hint of that in Levy’s friends accusing those who criticise peerage-flogging as being somehow ‘anti-semitic’. They aren’t: they are anti-corruption.

The problem with Sir Ronnie’s role concerns another religion: capitalism. His friend Gordon, who apparently hollers: ‘To the salt mines!’ at anyone not paying sufficient tax, levies private equity at the rate of 10 per cent: so while his budget abolished the 10 per cent tax band for the poor, it let the plutocrat luxuriate in Bahamian-style privilege.

Isn’t that rather pungent? Belatedly, ministers offer minor regulation of private equity outfits, but this is tokenistic. Brown says if he taxes private equity properly, it will move abroad. If he believes that, why is corporation tax 28 per cent here and 12 per cent in Ireland? Shouldn’t the budget have slashed it more than 2p in the pound if he fears business is that mobile?

This is not to diss Sir Ronnie or his trade: one person’s asset-stripper is another’s company saviour. He is as philanthropic with his money as Brown is with ours. He hopes ‘social capital’ can heal wounds, even in the Middle East, though, like Brown, he fails to see that some scars run deeper than dosh.

The more salient criticism of Cohen, however, is that his friendship with Brown could lend an impression that private influence protects private equity from proper public scrutiny, saving its practitioners squillions in tax. Cohen is drier than a cactus; no wonder he gets on with prickly Gordon.

But next time we hear the thwack of rubber on catgut in north London, we should ponder this: can Uncle Gordon’s connection with comrade Cohen really help the incoming Prime Minister restore our faith in politics?

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2042266,00.html

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