I am an alien. I don't fit in. I thought I lived in a country that valued diversity, but I'm wrong. Money is what's important in the UK these days - and if you don't make pots of it, you're not worth very much. In 2010 we became quaintly Victorian - the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and our only hope of wealth distribution pinned on old-fashioned philanthropists giving some of their millions to charity.
I may be wrong. I hope so. I am, after all, always broke, so all the talk of cuts has made me even more gloomy than usual. But I do think there's a subtle shift in the way we think about wealth in this country. Think of the public figures we hold up as role models - Sir Philip Green of Topshop, Sir Simon Cowell of X Factor, Sir David Beckham of Football. (I'm struggling to think of women here. Nigella Lawson? Cheryl Cole?) You could argue that we admire them for their achievements, not their massive bank balances. But I can't immediately think of anyone who has celebrity status who isn't, at the same time, mind-bogglingly rich. Do we love J. K. Rowling because she created Harry Potter or because she has proved how good she is by becoming astonishingly wealthy? Is it a coincidence that we have an extraordinarily well-heeled Cabinet governing the country? Are we overwhelmed by the romance of the royal wedding, or just quietly approving that an ordinary girl from Berkshire has bagged herself a life of luxury and privilege?
The recently published British Social Attitudes survey seems to suggest that we're much less concerned about the gap between the rich and the poor than we were twenty years ago. In 1989, 51. This may be because we've all become more selfish. Or because, in a recession, we think people should be allowed to hold on to every last penny in their pay packets. But I also wonder whether it's because we have come to think of wealth as a moral issue, as if having money somehow makes you a better person.
You could say that this worship of wealth doesn't really matter. Let those who want to make money get on with it, while the rest of us concentrate on careers that make very little at all - artists, teachers, carers (and, er, journalists). I may lack the vital gene that would put me in the running for Lord Sugar's next apprentice, but that's OK: I'm happier with smaller pleasures.
But I think this is a dangerous dead end. If we keep putting the accumulation of wealth at the top of our national priorities, we get into the kind of mess that led to the banking crisis. That was the pursuit of capitalism at its most raw, with the government smiling on the kind of risky behaviour that pushed the whole country into the red. (In fact, it did more than smile on risky behaviour. It rewarded it by neutralising massive debts with public money.)
We're going the same way with education. Higher education (in England, at least) is no longer a universal good - something that benefits the whole society. We aren't interested in training the next generation to think. Now it's all about the individual opting for any degree that guarantees a job with a salary. Reducing the study of the humanities to a kind of upper-class optional extra (because only the very rich will see the point of paying out £27,000 for an English degree) makes me want to weep.
At a Christmas party a few weeks ago, I got into a heated argument with a businessman who didn't agree that we live in an increasingly divided society. A salary of, say, £200,000 for the CEO of a private company isn't that high, he said, when you consider he's responsible for hundreds of people and works very hard. Nurses work hard, I said. You don't understand, said my smiling businessman. We need to pay people at the top the salary they expect to do the job.
He's probably right. If I were a high-powered businesswoman, I'd probably negotiate a lucrative contract.
But I would also argue that if we insist that wealth is the only measure of success, we become, as a country, hugely impoverished. Yes, let's have Sir Philip Green and Lord Sugar and Prince Beckham. But let's also value the full diversity of all the ways that people contribute to society - social entrepreneurs, environmental campaigners, poets, speech therapists, nursery nurses, musicians. I want clever people to run charities as well as retail consortia. I want parents to feel it's OK to take a career break to look after small children. I want us all to think about whether life means more than the kind of car you drive, how many bedrooms you have, where you went on holiday and how often you upgrade your phone.
'You're arguing for some kind of utopian ideal,' said my Christmas party businessman, his smile fading.
Too right I am. Otherwise, in 2011, I'm not sure I belong in Britain any more.
By: Marianne Kavanagh
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