What does a rich list really tell us?

Published by The i paper (18th May, 2020)

I was a young reporter on contract at The Sunday Times when Andrew Neil first published a “rich list”. Those were very different days in a rapidly changing country, still shaking off the complacency of the post-war era. The newspaper played a big role in shifting public discourse under its fearless editor. That 1989 list of Britain’s richest people showed how Margaret Thatcher’s reforms and the City of London’s Big Bang were reshaping society, both for better and for worse. It had 200 names, a collective value of £38bn and individuals had to be worth £30m for inclusion.

Since then, the price of a pint of milk has almost doubled. Now the latest list is out and, despite a pandemic-induced fall in wealth, the list of Britain’s wealthiest people is five times longer, they must be four times richer for inclusion and their collective wealth has risen almost twentyfold to £743bn. To put that figure in perspective, it is five times more than the health service budget and only slightly less than all state spending on public services. And these are very different days in our locked down nation.

The rich will always be with us, of course. Last year’s election proved again that Britain does not want to drive out wealth creators with the dismal failure of Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of reheated Seventies socialism. His hated top 1 per cent pay more than a quarter of income tax and capitalism remains a dynamic force that daily improves the world.

So we should not begrudge bold citizens who take risks and build fortunes from their own entrepreneurialism, such as Sir James Dyson, topping the new list with £16.2bn in his bulging pockets, despite his behaviour over Brexit. Nor all those rich creatives such as JK Rowling, closing in on billionaire status from her best-selling books.

But as we stand on the brink of the most savage economic downturn for decades, this list presents a snapshot of much that has gone wrong with Britain. It exposes a nation of grotesque inequality that lets corporate chiefs line pockets while paying peanuts to insecure workers, some dying on the front line. A place in which politics is corroded by cronyism, politicians are in thrall to rich hustlers and aristocrats still sit in Parliament due to patronage enjoyed by distant predecessors. An economy too reliant on self-serving financial trading, too open to dirty cash from abroad and too soft on tax avoiders who undermine the rest of society.

Consider this fact amid the crisis: Britain’s 508th richest person is Gordon Sanders, a property developer who moved into care homes and is now worth £253m, whose firm hires staff in the middle of the pandemic for barely more than minimum wage. Look at all the hedge-fund barons on the list. Ponder the private equity players, who often load up companies with debt, reduce costs, slash jobs and move on quickly having made a fast buck. Representatives of this questionable sector include Guy Hands and Chai Patel, who have been involved with two more of the big care home groups.

Both Hands and Patel have been political donors on differing sides of the tribal divide. But their sums were small compared to the millions given to the Conservatives by Lord Bamford, who was repaid with the publicity coup of Boris Johnson driving one of his diggers through a polystyrene wall in the final days of the Brexit battle. George Osborne also visited one of his factories during his time as chancellor. But it is the more insidious nature of political donations that cause most alarm, the quiet deals and lobbying over dinner to protect entrenched interests.

There are 48 people listed who handed over more than £200,000 – and 43 of them donated to the Tories. This entwined relationship between money and power is one reason Britain has been so bad at checking the excesses of capitalism. Note the gambling titans sprinkled in the list, their firms often based overseas while exploiting technology that unleashed 24-hour gambling.

Representatives of this repulsive industry are headed by the Coates family of Bet365, who have built a £7.2bn fortune in 20 years; and the brothers behind BetFred, worth more than a billion. At other end of the scale are all the lives wrecked by suicide, bankruptcy and the crushing misery of addiction to pernicious products, among the citizens failed by weak state control.

This pandemic will provoke searching questions for society as we struggle to find a path back towards normality. We must reappraise a world in which low-paid carers risk lives on the front line while bosses become obscenely rich. We will also have to pay for economic carnage. Already free market think tanks have rightly endorsed public spending increases to confront the coronavirus outbreak and state-funded investment to boost the recovery.

There is discussion over universal basic income as joblessness soars. Can wealth taxes be resisted much longer when a 29-year-old duke becomes Britain’s tenth richest person simply because an ancestor in 1677 married the heiress to some land that is now a posh part of central London?

But we must also be cautious. A big, intrusive state is often the plutocrat’s best ally. We see this in places such as China and Russia. We also saw it in the West with the banking crisis and subsequent bailout that protected many of those responsible for painful fiscal meltdown. Already in this crisis the government has turned to its usual outsourcing pals to deliver services and brought in accountancy behemoths that make big profits from aiding tax dodging. How much better it would be to follow Denmark’s lead and refuse to assist corporations that use tax havens.

Look again at that rich list. Let us use it as inspiration for rebuilding a better country.

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