Rich soup for the national soul

It will be a good week – yet another good week – for those who believe that the pride of our nation lies in its ever-enduring respect for wealth and class. The Sunday Times Rich List, a slavering celebration of “billionaire Britain”, has just been published, bringing the good news that the extremely wealthy have not only avoided the recession but have taken advantage of it to make more money.

The richest Briton, the Duke of Westminster, saw the value of the property portfolio he inherited increase over the past 12 months by a very acceptable £250m, bringing his value to £7bn.

The week’s TV elaborates on a similar theme. Last night saw the launch of Made in Chelsea, a “reality drama” which will invite viewers to gawp at the excesses of “a group of globetrotting twentysomethings who live in an affluent pocket of south-west London and party on the most elite social circuit in the world”. Laughing at young toffs is said to be a riposte to The Only Way is Essex, which plays the same trick at the other end of the social scale.

Finally, in this bumper week for the aspirational, Lord Sugar is back with the latest group of ambition-crazed grotesques competing in The Apprentice. Youngsters will be taught how to become rich and successful by putting themselves first, blaming others, and pulling a fast one on those doing business with them.

What happened? How did we get here? I could have sworn that, not so long ago, two successive Conservative prime ministers supported breaking down class barriers. I’m almost certain they were followed by two Labour prime ministers who made commitments to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Yet not only is class thriving as never before but it is feeding on those other contemporary obsessions, money and fame, and growing stronger as a result.

The new snobbery may be marginally preferable to that of the past in that at least it involves a small amount of effort. The old-fashioned class consciousness, which enjoyed its tedious heyday in the 1980s with the Sloane Rangers and their lovely young goddess Princess Di, was essentially about being in an exclusive club. No matter how thick or idle a person was, he or she was thought to be all right if they belonged to the right kind of family, did the right kind of jobs and held the right kind of values.

Today sees a small improvement: if you dream of becoming a globetrotting twentysomething on the most elite social circuit in the world, class will not necessarily be a barrier. Somewhat belatedly in our history, background is losing its importance as an indicator of social worth.

It is money which is now the unquestioned good. In The Apprentice, real qualities of character – loyalty, modesty, sensitivity – are derided by Alan Sugar as absurd hangovers of a lost age. Reading, thought, even education itself, are presented as a waste of a successful person’s time. The only talent that matters is the capacity to make money.

The Labour peer is presenting a show which enshrines Tory values. Champions of Thatcherism used to argue that a country’s strength is built on the money-making activities of its entrepreneurs. Their successors go further. The rich are not only supporting the economy, but are good for the national soul. Their dynamism, the values which they represent, are the foundations of the Big Society.

Eagerly, their camp followers in the press taken the cue. With smiling faces and happy families on every page, the Rich List is a propaganda tool for unconstrained capitalism. It devotes much space to the charitable activities of these lovely people. There is even a Giving List, listing the most generous of our billionaires. Greed was once said to be good. Now it is positively saintly.

Independent, Tuesday, 10 May 2011