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The UK Rich List – What Matters Is Who’s Not Included

May 19, 2014


Even if you’re not a reader of Britain’s Sunday Times, you would be hard put to ignore the paper’s annual hullabaloo over its Rich List – a compendium of the country’s wealthiest thousand residents.

I wonder how the remaining 63,704,000 inhabitants of this sceptered isle greet the news that London has more billionaires than any other capital city, and all the other statistics showing that the rich in Britain are getting richer by many times the rate of inflation. Do we choke over our cornflakes and pray for the revolution? Or do we pontificate over the theories of Thomas Piketty, this year’s economics superstar, whose book about the consequences of rising inequality is likely replace Steven Hawking’s Brief History of Time as the  work of non-fiction bought by the most people but read by the least? Or do we spit out a couple of well-chosen expletives at those rich bastards and return to our usual Sunday chores?

And what of the thousand themselves? Do they anxiously check the list to make sure they’ve made the cut? Or do they howl with indignation at being unfairly downgraded, as Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia did in his famous spat with Forbes Magazine? Or do they sigh with resignation, reach for the phone and order a few more goons for their personal security team, and prepare to repel the army of stalkers, paparazzi and chancers who come knocking at their doors in search of a piece of the newly-publicised action?

For me, the best thing about the Sunday Times Rich List was the delicious set of fat cats – portraits of Richard Branson, Simon Cowell and Elton John (as above) that show the miraculous ability of the human brain to recognise a face from a handful of visual prompts. Marvellous work by photographer Tim Flach and ad agency Grey London.

As for the rich themselves, I’ll resist the temptation to blather on about how envious I am at their ability to buy pieds-a-terre in any part of the world, to move from country to country in search of the most advantageous tax regime and to satisfy every whim that money can buy. Nor will I sermonise about wealth not necessarily making you happy, or point out that they can get sick, depressed and lonely, and that each and every one of them eventually dies like the rest of us.

But one thing does strike me after a brief perusal of the list. Those who do not feature on it are far more interesting than those who do.

Even in the shallow backwaters of the moderately wealthy, with only one exception you will not find a single British politician, judge or civil servant – serving or retired. The exception is Michael Heseltine, who founded his publishing business before getting into politics.

If it were possible to penetrate the opaque layer of privacy surrounding the assets of politicians in Russia and China, and to a lesser extent in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Japan, you would find rich lists heavily populated with the families, friends and business associates of those who hold political power. The same applies to the wealthy countries of the Middle East and any number of poverty-stricken African nations.

This is not to say that public servants in the United Kingdom are immune to influence by the wealthy. But clearly they are not enriching themselves to any great extent as a result. Political donations do not arrive through the goodness of the donor’s hearts. Yet we still have a culture that takes a dim view of the untoward exercise of influence. Hence the resignation last month of Patrick Mercer, a Conservative Member of Parliament exposed as tabling table parliamentary questions for cash, and thirteen years ago the demise of Labour minister Peter Mandelson on suspicion – never admitted or proven – that he pulled strings in order to secure British passports for the Hinduja brothers, who now sit proudly at of the top of the UK Rich List.

Elsewhere in the West there are numerous examples of the wealthy using their money to obtain political office. In the US, the Kennedys, the Romneys, the Rockefellers, and more recently Michael Bloomberg. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi. And in any number of countries the wealthy use their assets to influence rather than exercise power through democratic means. Take Sheldon Adelson, for example, whose massive donations to the Republican Party have significantly shaped opinion in the United States.

In Britain the time has long passed when landed aristocrats such as Lord Salisbury – the last Prime Minister to serve from the unelected House of Lords – used their power to achieve high office. And even when the wealthy ruled the roost, their exercise of power tended to be motivated by the interests of a ruling class, if not the nation, rather than personal gain.

So for all the implications for the long-term future of the United Kingdom of increasing wealth sticking to a small group of individuals while millions struggle on zero-hours contracts that pay the minimum wage, I still give thanks that I live in a country where the great and the good are not entirely measured by dollars in the bank, and where political corruption is not the greatest of our problems.

And at the risk of sounding pious, as I write this I’m sitting out in glorious sunshine surrounded by flowers in bloom, fresh leaves on the trees and an abundance of exuberant birds and insects.  I can see, hear, smell and taste the incomparable English spring. And that is an experience no money can buy.

From → Politics, Social, UK

  1. Ken Moore permalink

    Hi Steve,

    As ever a great piece and one that made me think about the country where I reside. Here the corruption of the political classes is all pervasive and growing by the day. The prime concern is being re-elected. Two things are happening in parallel to ensure they achieve their goals, which at first sight are contradictory. To set up an election campaign now takes stunning amounts of money, which can only be provided by corporations or rich people and at the same time, those in power are gerrymandering their constituency boundaries to ensure that they do get re-elected. It is now estimated that 80%+ of the seats in Congress are certain to return the incumbent. One would think that this would reduce the need for all that money and its attendant influence, but it doesn’t appear to work that way. The money continues to be needed and it continues to pour in from the power brokers.

    Incidentally it is reported that for the 2016 election the Koch brothers are intending to spend up to $100m to ensure their candidates, and by implication, their agenda wins the day. I think one tenth of that would elect all 635 British MPs.

    One slight point, for later discussion. I have read the life of Salisbury and my impression is that he was a very reluctant PM, but under pressure from colleagues, was convinced that it was his “duty” to take on the role.

    Look out for an email from Darla in the next 24 hours. I suspect we may need to talk.


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