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Elitism returns as we do an Edwardian full circle

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Monday, 30 July 2012


The more things change … If you ever get to the south of France, visit Nimes. There you can gaze upon the Roman amphitheatre and ponder its two-millennium journey of creation, obsolescence, decay and rebirth. For, as social and economic structures change, so do our habits and institutions and patterns from one age recur.

Nimes' amphitheatre was built to host mass entertainments at the height of the Roman Empire. Then, as Rome morphed into mediaeval Christendom, the amphitheatre fell into disuse. It then became a fortress and later a walled village complete with chapels and accommodation reconfigured with stone cannibalised from the original structure. Of course its initial style was horrible. So plain and utilitarian! So saints were carved into walls and gothic arches were erected.

Then the ancient world gradually came back into fashion and the mediaeval world slowly gave way to modern mass society. In the early 19th-century people observed that public spectacles could be held within its walls and by the middle of the century it was so. Remarkably enough, the structure could be converted without too much trouble into an amphitheatre!

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And so, via a two-millennium detour, bullfighting and rock concerts displaced the Roman gladiators and animal hunts and the amphitheatre's architecture was once again appreciated for its utility and simplicity.

In a similar way, as inequality has grown, our society has been reinventing institutions that last thrived in Edwardian times before World War I. Well-to-do young children often see more of their nannies than their parents. Likewise Edwardian travel was divided into first class, second class and steerage. I recall in the 1960s and '70s which now look like the golden age of egalitarianism, the emergence of ''one-class'' ships and aeroplanes.

In today's bigger market, though one-class airlines still exist; they're specialist budget affairs such as Tiger and Jetstar. But Virgin tried and failed to cater to a wider audience with the same approach. It turns out the well-heeled want more than extra leg room. They want a fuss made over them, with special meals and privileges and a special cabin up the front with similar people with whom they might clinch that deal.

Meanwhile, back on our long-haul national carrier, Qantas, today's travellers are now stratified into more classes than you'd find on the Titanic: first, business, premium economy and economy. Departure lounges too embody the Edwardian spirit of our age. There is modern steerage - hanging around the departure gate waiting for the boarding call - and there are the special lounges, such as the Qantas Club for about $800 for your first year.

But there's another rung up. Behind smoked-glass doors marked ''private'', special passengers relax in the Chairman's Lounge and wait till the receptionist discretely comes and gets them (usually after the others are on board - so they don't have to wait). The price for all this? Nothing. It's by invitation and each ''member'' is literally signed off by Qantas' chairman!

Along with the highest echelons of the largest companies, secretaries and deputy secretaries in the federal public service, all federal politicians are offered access. My hunch is that the public service would have had serious qualms about this a generation ago. Today, the Public Service Commission agonises. Warning against accepting benefits that ''result in an actual or perceived conflict of interest'' it also offers this: ''At times, particularly for senior employees, acceptance of offers of entertainment or hospitality can provide valuable opportunities for networking with stakeholders.'' Quite.

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And another Edwardian tradition is making a comeback. When an Edwardian gentleman went to jail - as conscientious objector philosopher Bertrand Russell did during World War I - they took their books. They got an altogether better standard of accommodation than hoi polloi.

Today in some cash-strapped municipalities in California, non-violent offenders can buy upgrades to a better, cleaner prison, with more visits, all at a safe distance from more dangerous inmates.

As The New York Times reported in 2007, just as with those top-of-the-line departure lounges - discretion is a byword. ''Many of the self-pay jails operate like the secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world. You have to be in the know to even apply for entry, and even if the court approves your sentence there, jail administrators can operate like bouncers, rejecting anyone they wish.''

I guess just as they've stopped killing gladiators in Nimes - now they only slaughter bulls - we've made progress. Back in Edwardian times it was gentlemen only. Today women - like celebrities Lindsay Lohan - also access such privileges. And, though you can buy yourself better service, no - you can't bring your servants.

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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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