The Blog

The 2014 Sunday Times Rich List Is Britain's Badge of Shame

The revelation that the UK is now officially home to more billionaires per head of population than any other country in the entire world is a badge of shame.

The revelation that the UK is now officially home to more billionaires per head of population than any other country in the entire world is a badge of shame.

The annual Sunday Times Rich List has just been published and it makes sobering reading.

London, with 72 billionaires, is the city of choice for the super rich, while Scotland now has a record number of billionaires at seven in total - up one from last year. The most notable of those is the founder of Stagecoach, Sir Brian Souter, a wealthy supporter of the SNP and Scottish independence - a point to consider when we keep hearing from supporters of the Yes campaign that an independent Scotland offers an opportunity for us oppressed Scots to be free of Tory England and become a beacon of progress and equality.

The relationship between the number of billionaires presently living in the UK at one end of the wealth and social spectrum and the Dickensian level of poverty and destitution that exists at the opposite end cannot be denied. That one could not exist without the other is clear, as is the fact that the tax friendly environment that currently prevails in the country places London on a par with Hong Kong and Dubai as playgrounds for the super rich.

I am not comfortable living in a society in which billionaires are allowed to thrive while there is one person who remains homeless and struggling to keep body and soul together. It is clearly unsustainable in the longer term, a state of affairs that will inevitably result in a social explosion of some sort. Austerity has by now become synonymous with bashing the poor for the greed and excess of the wealthy - in particular the small group of men and women who've turned the City of London into a Las Vegas casino. The only difference is that the gambling that takes place on a daily basis in the City of London is far in excess of the numbers being gambled in Vegas, and is underwritten by the taxpayer.

It was the French novelist and playwright, Honore de Balzac, who asserted: "Behind every great fortune lies a great crime."

Far be it from me or anybody else to accuse the individuals who've made it onto the annual Sunday Times Rich List of being criminals, but certainly there is something deeply immoral about being a billionaire. For one person or family to have so much wealth is in its own way as dehumanising as poverty. Oscar Wilde reminded us that "There is only one class in the community that thinks about money more than the rich, and that is the poor."

Who could possibly argue?

Of course, by now we used to being accused of engaging in the politics of envy whenever we criticise the rich or call for them and their wealth to be taxed more. This, to be sure, is part of the conditioning society has been subjected to over the past three decades of Thatcherism, the dominant political and economic orthodoxy. As someone once said: "The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the dominant ideas."

It's not envy, though, it is anger - a deep seated grievance over the sheer gall of those who defend the right of extreme wealth and ostentation to prosper while children go to bed hungry at night. Is this progress? Is this acceptable in a civilized society?

We might as well be living in ancient Rome, given how far we have regressed in our attitude to wealth and inequality, and given the extent of the attacks we are seeing on the incomes and conditions of the poor, working poor, and low paid under the rubric of austerity.

There is no achievement in being rich enough to live like a pharaoh. There is, however, an achievement in forging a society in which justice sits at the very heart and ensures that no child receives two pints of milk while there is one child who receives none. The great European revolutions were waged upon this principle and with the extent of inequality that exists today, who's to say there won't be more of them in the future?

The Sunday Times Rich List doesn't lie and neither do foodbanks. In 2014 we are living in a country cursed with both.

Something's got to give.