In a few weeks, the Sunday Times will publish its 25th annual Rich List. That’s nearly a quarter-century of poring over other people’s assets, weighing them up and compiling a pointless pop chart of unearned wealth.What on earth is it for?
Does it matter whether Gerald Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster is still the richest Brit in Britain?
Whether government adviser Sir Philip Green and his tax-exile wife Tina (who once bought him a gold Monopoly set featuring only properties he owned in real life) have added to the £3.3billion fortune that put them in 17th place in last year’s list?
Or even that in 2012 only three British citizens featured in the top 15 of British-held wealth – and that one of those three (a former Miss UK, Kirsty Bertarelli) got rich by marrying a Swiss pharmaceuticals tycoon?
There may be some passing interest in the fact that last year’s Top Five were three Russians and two Indians.
But what does it say about us as a society that someone goes on compiling this catalogue every year – and that we go on buying it and reading it?
What do we think of these preposterously rich (and therefore powerful) people?
Do we admire Lakshmi Mittal for his £12.7bn?
Do we look up to Major-General Grosvenor, Baronet, Knight of the Garter, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Francis I (and of St Lazarus), Companion of the Order of the Bath, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, Knight of Justice of the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem, OBE etc etc for being born filthy rich?
Do we think the Davids Beckham and Bowie, who have at least done some visible work for their fame and fortune, entirely deserve them?
Or is our attitude to all these ridiculously rich people more than a little coloured by envy?
Do we even, perhaps, despise them just a little – bracketing them with that nasty Harry Enfield character from the 1990s who was “considerably richer than you”?
Do the Greens and the Grosvenors, the Abramoviches and the Fredriksens care whether they’ve gone up or down in the latest chart, in or out of the Top Ten? Or do they just enjoy their dosh for its own sake?
Did Richard Branson get as much pleasure from his third billion as he did from his first? Or his first million?Does all this filthy lucre make these people happy? Or are they all as screwed up as most of the rest of us?
Do they fret about the spare billion the way you or I might worry about paying the milk bill?
Does having enough dosh to buy Marks & Spencer – not a nice salad or a nice dress, but the whole shop, the whole chain of shops – make you a better person than the woman selling Big Issue outside it? In any way at all?
So far nearly every sentence on this page has ended in a question mark, and I don’t have ready answers for any of them.
Especially not for the first question: What’s it all for?
It does hint, of course, at the deep sickness we are all infected with to some degree or other. The delusion that having money is what matters in the world.
And it also tells us something quite significant in this time of “austerity”, when we must tighten our belts, face cuts to jobs and services because “we’re all in this together”.
The veteran Labour MP Michael Meacher perused the 2012 Rich List closely and came to some interesting conclusions.
First that the 1,000 richest individuals in Britain had increased their wealth over the previous three years by £155bn – enough to pay off the entire UK budget deficit and still leave them £30bn to spare.
He then noted that despite the biggest slump for nearly a century, the 1,000 richest were together sitting on even more cash than before the crash, a total of £414bn. They included 77 billionaires and 23 others each possessing more than £750m.
In a letter to the national press, Meacher concluded: “This mega-rich elite, containing many of the bankers and hedge fund and private equity operators who caused the financial crash in the first place, have not been made subject to any tax payback whatever.
“Some 77 per cent of the budget deficit is being recouped by public expenditure cuts and benefit cuts, and only 23pc is being repaid by tax increases. More than half of the tax increases is accounted for by the VAT rise, which hits the poorest hardest. None of the tax increases is specifically aimed at the super-rich.
“The increase in wealth of this richest 1,000 has been £315bn over the last 15 years. If they were charged capital gains tax on this at the current 28pc rate, it would yield £88bn, enough to pay off 70pc of the entire deficit.”
The figures may be a year old, but I don’t suppose they’ve changed much. Probably the next list will show that the fat cats have got a little fatter.
So, back to one of my earlier questions: What do we think of these rich bods?
I think perhaps they should be made to pay up and get us all out of the clarts.
Someone will no doubt object to this suggestion on the grounds that it's not that simple. To which I could only respond with another question: Why not?