Starting in 1988, the Sunday Times 'Rich List' is now in its 30th year. It has survived and prospered through all sorts of political seasons and economic social periods, from the high point of Thatcherism and 'Loadsamoney' to New Labour's own embracing of the super rich, and the slow turning against the grotesque excesses and indulgences of such forces. And yet here we are, nearly a decade after the banking crash and years of static and falling living standards for most, and it still exists unapologetically.
This year's list came with a concerted attempt at spin and reinvention. It was supposedly about the fact that it was all change at the top – out with the old and in with the new – with new money, new elites, and more women. Robert Watts, who compiles the list, shamelessly punted this line:
Britain is changing. Gone are the days when old money and a small band of industries dominated. Aristocrats and inherited wealth has been elbowed out of the list. Today’s super rich include people who have set up businesses selling chocolate, sushi, pet food and eggs.
You can almost feel the spirit of rebellion and freedom that was articulated in early 1960s Britain to overthrow the old stuffy elites, and what was perceived then as the overhang of Victorian society and deference that continued until Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home. But today, no one is really invoking rebellion, freedom, or the myth of a classless society with greater opportunity for people from everyday backgrounds. Some things never change with the same old anti-industry and making things attitude running through the wealthy. The most common source of wealth is property (164), followed by finance and investment (123), with food and drink a distant third (57).
But still the Sunday Times propaganda machine churned on, trying to mow down any resistance. Camilla Long made the outlandish claim on the 'Andrew Marr Show' that all elite money and privilege originated in self-starters muscling in and identifying new ventures. She stated that 'however far back you go, everyone on the "Rich List" 2018 is self-made,' thus indicating that she had little notion of the brutal practices of feudalism or early capitalism – and that, unsurprisingly, she had never read or heard of the arguments in books such as Andy Wightman's 'The Poor Had No Lawyers,' which meticulously itemises the mass theft of the powerful across centuries.
First placed in the 'Rich List' was Jim Ratcliffe, chief executive of Ineos, reportedly worth £21.5 billion, up from £15.3 billion – the huge increase not due to any great surge in his wealth, but to the Sunday Times having greater details about his assets. A large part of the 'Rich List' it seems is guesswork, which is then presented as fact, lifting a veil on a secret world which, in reality, still remains tantilisingly out of view.
Ratcliffe is the owner of the industrial site Grangemouth which plays a pivotal role in the Scottish economy. Yet, no matter how the Sunday Times present it, Ratcliffe and Ineos cannot be presented as model and ethical employers, such is their very public record of being cost-cutters, and underminers of labour conditions and wages, as well as no friends of trade unions.
The 'Rich List' and all its represents is the world of trickle-down economics: the allure that the rich will inherit the earth, there is nothing we can do about it, and the best any of us mere mortals can hope for is to gain a few crumbs falling from the top table. The Sunday Times says that the top 20 most wealthy people are worth a combined £218.6 billion, an increase in their cumulative wealth in one year of £33.5 billion: an inflation-busting rise of 18.1%. The list now has 145 billionaires and 141 woman, leading Robert Watts to claim: 'What we are seeing is more people from humble backgrounds, who struggled at school or who didn't even start their businesses until well into middle age.'
Geographically the spread is less diverse: of the 24 top cities the top in wealth is London (99 on the list), followed by New York (66), San Francisco (64), Hong Kong (63) and Moscow (55). Not one Scottish or other UK city appears.
Magnus Linklater provided an interesting take on this the next day in the Times with his defence of Jim Ratcliffe and the world which produces such businessmen and businesses. Linklater extolled the virtues of Grangemouth as 'a Scottish success story' about 'clean fuel and chemical business, producing millions of litres of one and millions of tonnes of the other.' No word that a large part of Grangemouth's infrastructure and plant was a result of it being previously publicly owned, that it was only privatised in 1987 and bought by Ineos in 2005, and that their subsequent record has been marred by poor industrial relations at times, such as their threat to close the plant in 2013, and scant investment.
One object of Linklater's ire was that the Scottish government and Nicola Sturgeon refuse to wholeheartedly and unconditionally back Ratcliffe's version of capitalism, making the charge that: 'It is not every government that has a self-made billionaire on its doorstep – a deal made with the Midas touch – who creates successful companies, almost by instinct, and who has, in effect, all the entrepreneurial qualities that are in such short supply north of the border.'
Now there is an element of truth in the above in that Radcliffe grew up in a council house until the age of 10, but the unqualified tribute to his entrepreneurial skills is at least a bit questionable. Ratcliffe has created few new companies and jobs and instead comes from the discreditable British capitalist tradition of acquisition, asset stripping, cost-cutting, and buying other people's successful enterprises, such as Grangemouth.
The final issue that profoundly irritates Linklater is that the Scottish government cannot see the glorious opportunities provided by fracking. Instead, they are involved in a long-running legal conflict with Ineos, which is even more irksome to such commentators, with the Scottish authorities not even committed to a comprehensive ban, instead settling for a moratorium.
All this talk of self-made men, and the occasional self-made woman, is part of a smokescreen. We know that in most cases the men and women who present themselves as self-made are nothing of the sort. Last week some Murdoch apologist was trying to claim that Rupert Murdoch was self-made, which would be a strange description of a man who began in papers running his father's media empire, News Limited, following his death. Not only is social mobility grinding to a halt in the UK and across the West, the myth of meritocracy is part of the delusional, self-justification by the elite.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication 'The Rise of the Meritocracy,' written by Michael Young (the father of uber-marketeer Toby Young). Young's 1958 volume was set in a dystopian Britain of 2033 that looks remarkably prescient in relation to the state of today's country. He foresaw a country where the elite continually claim that their talents and skills got them there, and that the have-nots lack motivation and intelligence, and are destined to be failures because they deserve to be so.
This was Young's original idea of meritocracy – a word he coined and gave meaning to. It was then meant to denote the self-interested worldview of the elites defining their success and position as due to their individual worth, with the rest of the population somehow lacking in zest and commitment. Hence, meritocracy was a mixture of elite justification and a chimera. Strangely, through the convolutions of post-war Britain, under Wilson, Heath, Thatcher and Blair, the political class reclaimed and remade the word as a good: meritocracy was about a society of merit, of strivers and makers. But they did so without any awareness of Young's original meaning.
Yet, even more interestingly, the policies of successive post-war British governments, pursuing policies shaped by their dubious notion of meritocracy, have not produced the bright new confident dawn that they hoped for and we were promised. Instead, it has brought us close to the world invoked by Michael Young's dark dystopia – of a bitterly divided country where the richest 10% of households own 44% of national wealth, while more than 40% of working-age men with no qualifications are economically inactive (up from 4% 20 years ago).
Today's elites believe that their globalist, cosmopolitan, and liberal values are the direct descendants of the Enlightenment, and that all opposition is backward, reactionary and Luddite, futilely trying to hold out against progress. Young's book concludes with a revolution led from the north, as people become angry with the arrogance of London and the south; a 'dissident minority' of the elite make an alliance with the disadvantaged to challenge the existing order. The mainstream take is that such revolt is all but impossible, with people either tied-in to mortgages, debt and insecurity, or just resigned to their fate. This after all is the logic which runs through the Sunday Times 'Rich List' and the insouciance of Linklater and his disinterest at the absence of a moral capitalism.
But look beyond the shiny towers, endless consumption and fascination in the media with the lives of the pampered elites, and how else is Brexit explained but as a revolt of the masses? This was appropriated for a cause which didn't address the structural divides of modern Britain, but gave voice to those who previously felt powerless and who raged against the elites. This is a fracture which goes to the heart of nearly everything in the UK, and will continue to define public debate long after the UK leaves the EU next year. Brexit is not just about Brexit, but the kind of society we live in and how we make the smug, self-satisfied elite and their apologists accountable for the world they have made.