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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jones

The new global elite

Forget illegal immigrants. A cosmopolitan class, young, mobile and restless, move from country to country as their grandparents might have moved from town to town. Do they end up as citizens of nowhere? By John Prideaux

”You can do finance,” says Max, a Parisian who works in a London investment bank, “with 50 English words.” He speaks a French of which Racine would approve, but seems to take a positive pleasure in the daily acts of lexical torture that his job allows him to inflict on English – using verbs such as “structured” and “leveraged”, which seem better descriptions of the actions of the cranes that build the City’s glass skyscrapers than of what bankers do inside them, and acronyms as clunking as anything Soviet planners could think up. “LBO-ed”, “Ebitda” and “Eonia” are borrowed and redeployed as double-agents in little acts of revenge on Anglo-Saxon culture. Anyone who has learned the 50 words of English that give an impression of competence and insiderdom in their own particular job can now take them anywhere. This group includes not just bankers, accountants and managers, but civil servants and people working for other acronyms such as the UN or NGOs.

These shortlists of words, available from all good universities, bring membership of a cosmopolitan middle class. An identikit member of this Duty Free generation would be younger than 35. She would move jobs from capital city to capital city, never staying longer than a few years. The thought of moving to a provincial city in her home country is more unsettling than a move to the other side of the world. She hardly uses local public services. She may invest her money internationally, and so has no significant stake in a single national economy. When she goes abroad, she stays with foreign friends who share her tastes and understand her acronyms. She may end up marrying one of them.

Nobody knows how many Duty Free-ers there are: government migration figures do not discriminate between those who arrive clutching Gucci bags and those who come with bags from Tesco, and no one bothers to register with their embassy on arrival as they used to. One way of estimating the size of this group is to take 5 per cent of the total labour force of the rich countries that make up the OECD, which works out as 27 million. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers of expatriates as a whole are also swelling. The professional guessers at the US embassy in London reckon that there are roughly 200,000 Americans in the UK. The German embassy reckons that roughly 200,000 Germans have made the same trip as their Saxon ancestors. But the French are way out in front: their embassy thinks there are 250,000 French people in London alone. That’s equivalent to two medium-sized arrondissements in Paris.

But being a Duty Free-er puts a person in an odd relationship with their host society and with the place they have left behind. There are two main charges: first, they are unlikely to be members of a church or any voluntary organisation in their host country, other than a football team. There simply isn’t time. It takes more than a year to train up a volunteer for the Samaritans: if you’re only staying for a couple of years, that isn’t long enough. Second, they become several fractions of a citizen in their different locations, but this never adds up to a whole.

Paul Kingsnorth, writing in the NS in September, went further, arguing that this “rootless, technocratic” elite, “unburdened by the baggage of locality or the complications of history”, is missing out on something: “They can stay in eco-lodges in Brunei, but they will never be able to identify the birds that sing in their own country’s hedges. They drink the finest bottled water from their minibars, but they have never drunk from a mountain stream.” Irrespective of the health hazards now associated with such simple refreshment (the last mountain stream I went near doubled as a latrine for passing goats) or the fact that 85 per cent of the population would probably fail the hedgerow test, this rootlessness sounds real.

The unsettling of a large slice of society has happened before. The move from a regional to a national culture in Britain also had an adverse effect on local culture. Frank Prochaska, in an excellent pamphlet on charity and civic virtue for the think- tank Civitas, writes about the way charity, with its marked local culture, struggled to operate in a country that had grown more homogeneous and national by the end of the 19th century. As people from Cornwall conversed with Yorkshiremen, regional accents weakened and ways of speaking became deracinated. Sensing that something was being lost for ever, compilations of local slang, such as the 1875 Dictionary of Sussex Dialect, were put together by alert glottophiles.

A similar cultural change is happening now. Thanks in part to the phenomenon of international student exchanges and cheap travel during university holidays, those entering the cosier sectors of the labour market now view foreign countries as things to be collected, like books or records. This is probably a good thing, because the companies they join expect them to move around a lot. General Electric, which tends to be a trendsetter as far as management practices go, runs graduate trainee schemes that shuffle new recruits a couple of times a year, placing them in new countries. Once they join the company, some of them can expect to move every two or three years. Mike Hanley, head of human resources for GE in Europe, reports that the young people now joining the company cite the peripatetic lifestyle as an attraction, rather than a drawback. Paul Robinson of KPMG, which has a healthy business sorting out the tax tangles that frequent relocations throw up, says that 15 years ago workers had to be offered huge incentives to move. Now they are more likely to head off voluntarily.

The charge that Duty Free-ers don’t get involved much in local activities is probably true, although this is a tendency that – while it may typify a cosmopolitan elite – is not limited to them. The British government has made repeated efforts to encourage people to volunteer for things, so far to little avail: 90 per cent of the population think volunteering is a good thing, according to the National Centre for Volunteering, and 22 million people volunteer for something annually, leaving two-thirds of the population apparently thinking that volunteering is good as long as it’s done by someone else. Enthusiasm for good works in Britain is slowly recovering from the pervasive view expressed by Richard Crossman (Labour secretary of state for health in the late 1960s) that the high tide of British charity which existed prior to the creation of the welfare state had been an “odious expression of social oligarchy and churchy bourgeois attitudes”. Nevertheless, the term “do-gooder” is still a powerful slur.

The notion that inhabitants of a certain place have some kind of duty to discharge to others who live near them is also an uncomfortable one for many people: duty sounds archaic and is still associated with a whiskered face on recruiting posters urging some great sacrifice for the empire. The softer contemporary take on a citizen’s duty, membership of “civil society” – meaning any organisation that is not work, the government or your family – lacks any compulsion to participate, so that those who sit it out cannot be accused of cheating.

Yet there is a nagging feeling that these people are not citizens in any meaningful sense of the word. They are allowed to vote and compelled to pay tax, the minimum requirements of modern citizenship. But it is not clear what they ought to be doing beyond that. Aristotle tried to define what being a citizen meant in Book Three of Politics, but had to concede that it was a slippery question and that all that could be said for sure was that, in practice, a citizen was someone whose parents were also citizens. But this requirement is bypassed when people immigrate and become naturalised, or if they can buy citizenship. Henley & Partners, a firm that specialises in relocating rich people, says that residency in Britain can be bought for

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