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More Alarm Needed at Gap Between Super Rich and Rest of Us

29/04/2015 23:37 BST | Updated 28/06/2015 10:59 BST

News that the very rich in Britain have doubled their wealth in the last 10 years should be cause for, well, what exactly? Celebration? Somehow it is hard to reach for the bubbly and bunting.

Instead, reaction to the annual Sunday Times Rich List, with its latest from Big Money's frontline, is unease, a reminder of rising wealth polarisation.

Wherever the rest of us are, millionaires seem to be next door, multi-millionaires somewhere nearby, and around the corner a class of people so moneyed that they even have their own acronym, 'High Net Worths'. These are people who increasingly live in what Wall Street Journal writer Robert Frank has dubbed 'Richistan'.

Richistan is a parallel place where services are accessed via concierges, and any social mingling is between each other. Residents have power and influence, often exercised invisibly, and protect themselves from taxes and other indignities, such as everyone else, using armies of highly-paid professionals.

The centre of our capital, where power and culture are concentrated, is where they generally live in this country, a place now beyond the reach of even well-paid young professionals. No wonder people feel alienated from the established political class when they are in large part exiled physically from where it is based.

Meanwhile, the UK has a measurable underclass, huge economic imbalances between the regions, and a raging national debt to service.

The basics of civil life, such as health and education, seem respectively to be buckling or unfocused. We all wonder if our well-educated children will be able to afford a house somewhere where they might want to live, or at all, let alone get a well-paid job to pay off that university debt.

All in it together? Possibly. But some are clearly navigating austerity aboard rather more comfortable craft than others.

The middle classes, driven by expectation and ambition, but caught increasingly between the poles of wealth and poverty, have much smaller vessels keeping them afloat. They are relying almost entirely on notions of property wealth (thank you low interest rates) to sustain any sense of their own savoir faire as they shop at Lidl.

Something is just not adding up. Historically, those at the very top relied on those in the middle to ease their lives through skill and also to protect them from the bottom, with the gap from peak to trough far less than it is now. When the middle collapses, chaos really ensues.

I am not suggesting that this is happening in the UK. But there is a need for change, a re-evaluation of reward and redistribution, of rights and obligations. Absolute wealth is not the issue. It is the gap between that wealth and those beneath that needs attention.

The sociologist Peter Townsend created the concept of social polarisation to connect social exclusion and poverty, which he thought meant too much focus on an underclass. He considered the creation of an 'overclass' of elite super-rich at least as damaging.

The richest tiny percentage may pay the most tax, and we thank them. But we have to assume they can afford it: They still seem very rich afterwards.

They also benefit from a stable, cohesive, congenial society in which to live and work. Arguably, much of what Government does directly benefits them, which perhaps explains why the rich give so much money to political parties.

Wealth is a wonderful thing, and of course there will always be a gap between rich and poor. We all have the right to work hard, generate employment and inherit money.

But we also all live in society with each other. Money is meant to buy a better life, not better barricades. Really, how interesting is Richistan without the rest of us?