Once a rich person gets past a billion, their sense of humour tends to go, along with their tolerance for ordinary people. They can’t begin to spend the money, but they can’t stop thinking about it either. The clever ones don’t buy into the fallacy that the riches are actually theirs: they offload as much as they can, then leave the problem firmly where it belongs, in the hands of their children. Being filthy rich isn’t a burden, but it’s not a blessing either, for the upsetting reason that the things money can buy so often stand at a terrible distance from the things it can’t. Rich people go round and round, because that’s all they can do, flying and racing and shaving off the seconds, never getting over the fact that time isn’t a luxury but a slayer.
The aliens in the old TV advert for Smash bust their rivets at our follies, and I tried to imagine them confronted with the story of Bryan Johnson, a tech billionaire devoted to living for ever, who took blood from his 17-year-old son, Talmage. Some truths are better expressed in a headline, so I chose one from my new favourite online publication, the Edge: Your Longevity Magazine: ‘Billionaire Vampire-in-Training Injects Himself with Teenage Blood to Reverse Biological Age.’ Johnson, who is 45, spends $2 million every year on the quest for immortality, which would be a Wordsworthian task – you know, splendour in the grass and all that – were it not for the fact that he also invests heavily in ‘an overnight erection tracker’. ‘Elective plasma transfusions from young donors,’ according to Rebekah Harding of the Edge, ‘are the newest craze in the biohacking community.’ The procedure ‘hopes to regenerate hair growth, boost cognitive function, and stave off other markers of biological ageing’.
Yes, this is happening in Dallas. Yes, Bryan looks like Hannibal Lecter (Talmage, by the way, already looks about 105). But we in the UK also have our own supersized mindfuck when it comes to the accumulating and spaffing of cash. You may not believe it, as the cost of living crisis rages and the planet boils, but London – having just lost its status as Russia’s favourite laundromat – is now the private jet capital of Europe. ‘The obvious reason that private airlines have done so well in Britain,’ says the Times, ‘aside from our island geography, is the proliferation of rich people.’ A private jet takes off or arrives at a British airport every six minutes. The chief executive of Diamonté Jets believes in giving customers the discretion and privacy they have come to expect. In the middle of May, he was flying a small battalion to the Cannes Film Festival and the Monaco Grand Prix, to say nothing of West Ham fans to Prague.
In Lotto Britain, the perma-narrative – the story that never stops giving – is the one about the bricklayer who ends up with €90 million. It’s funny, in a country that appears to have spurned Europe, that the fantasy that really gets people going is the one where they win on a multi-rollover EuroMillions. When it comes to the national conversation (which nobody wants to think about), or even a chat in a local pub, ‘How would you spend it?’ is much more common than ‘Who are you voting for?’ Viv Nicholson, whose husband won the football pools in 1961 and who told the press she would ‘spend, spend, spend’ (she later served as the cover star of the Smiths’ single ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’), is the presiding spirit. Viv struggled, but the idea that an ordinary person can be elevated by riches, transformed by holidays and furs, is more plausible to many than transformation through work or taxation. In Lotto Britain, the Good Life is the life they have on Love Island, an endless parade of self-tanning and nail extensions, gym sessions and Prosecco.
When the Sunday Times Rich List was first published, in 1989, the person at number one was the queen. At the time, she was worth £5.2 billion, and it seemed logical, in a farcical, doilies-and-teacups way, that the head of state should also be the richest person in the land. That first list was full of landed gentry: at number two was the duke of Westminster, and elsewhere there were eleven dukes, six marquises, fourteen earls, nine viscounts and any number of cheating, ruby-faced hoorays in waxed jackets and custard-coloured cords. Published ten years on from Thatcher’s rise to power, the list irritated her closest supporters, who thought there were still too many rich landowners and not enough self-made billionaires. It took Tony Blair to manage that (deregulation, baby), and in 2008 Gordon Brown introduced ‘golden visas’, which allowed swathes of high-net-worth individuals to enjoy what modern Britain had to offer. By 2013, the number one spot on the Rich List was held by Alisher Usmanov, the Russian metals magnate, with Roman Abramovich at number five.
In 2023, most of the oligarchs are gone. They still have their money, but they live in delightful mountaintop villas in Uzbekistan or Turkey, and their British assets have been frozen. Meanwhile, the bricklayers and bungalow-builders of Britain are having a field day. Bob Bull, the second highest new entry on the Rich List at £1.9 billion, has a mother and an ex-wife from what he calls ‘the travelling fraternity’. Bob now has a blonde Norwegian fiancée, Sara, who, he reports, ‘is like a ten or an eleven’. ‘The first time she gave me a cuddle,’ he adds, ‘it was like coming home.’ But to which home? Bob could buy several small towns in the North of England and still have enough money to buy Zanzibar, and I don’t mean the nightclub in Uxbridge. He was a winner in a year when many people weren’t, and that’s the big news from this year’s Rich List: the number of billionaires is down for the first time since the financial crash of 2008, although the Sunday Times is keen to calm the nerves, reporting that ‘this is not a crash: it’s a correction.’ There were too many overvalued companies and too many evil people claiming to be British.
I’m glad we got that sorted out. Meanwhile, the heart refuses to break at news of Richard Branson’s fortune shrinking by 42.6 per cent to £2.4 billion. Alex Chesterman – once of Planet Hollywood, now of planet Earth – has seen the value of his online car retailer, Cazoo, sink by 99 per cent. It turns out that the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has been losing capital almost as fast as he’s been losing political capital: half a million a day, rubbed from the value of holdings belonging to him and his wife, Akshata Murty. Financial analysts keep talking about ‘the end of the party’. I thought they were still on about Sunak, but they mean the party in general: the leg-up-to-evildoers, bend-the-rules-for-oligarchs, domicile-flogging, cash-for-questions, honours-for-horrors debacle, the bending over backwards for multinational polluters, addiction-producing pharmaceutical companies and minimum-wage flouters, government-backed union-bashers.
Oh, that party? Don’t worry: it’s not over. There’s plenty of room on the dancefloor yet, and the Rich List shows that many billions can be made, even in a bad year, by entrepreneurs who believe that cheap is best, especially when it comes to people. Sales at Home Bargains (‘Top Brands. Bottom Prices’) have increased by £3.4 billion. Home Bargains has nearly 600 stores throughout Britain and the company’s owner, Tom Morris, enjoys the excellent designation of being the richest Liverpudlian in history. For fans of Paul McCartney, it’s depressing to find that there’s a lot more money in disposable toilet wipes than there is in writing ‘Love Me Do’. Still, McCartney comes in at 175 on the Rich List, having amassed £950 million. Another £50 million – which for him means a short run of goodbye concerts and a veggie cookbook – will turn the man Smash Hits used to call ‘Wacky Thumbs Aloft’ into a humourless billionaire. Among the under 35s, the singer Adele has £165 million and was said to be earning £500,000 a night during her Las Vegas residency, a sum that would bring a tear to the eye of your average prime minister.
Appearing at number one on the list for the fifth time in a row are the Hinduja clan, who share £35 billion between them, yet are embroiled in a legal dispute of such bitterness it makes the Roy family look like the Waltons. The Hindujas are not the only problem family: Lakshmi Mittal, the metals baron, has £16 billion and appears at number six on the list, but his brother Pramod is said to be bankrupt. As far as we know, the Issa brothers, Mohsin and Zuber, from Blackburn, get on better. They own Asda and 6600 petrol stations. Accumulated wealth? £4.7 billion.
Further down the list, a run of big-league strivers appear to struggle with the dark side of financial fame. At 156, there’s the Estonian techie Kristo Käärmann, who was once described by the British tax authorities as a ‘deliberate tax defaulter’. At 158 is Henning Conle, the owner of the Liberty building and multiple London properties, who has been accused of making illegal donations to the far-right German party AfD. At 160 is Gerald Ronson, who has £1.1 billion but in the 1980s was jailed over a share-trading fraud. At 161, we find the Russian energy investor Eugene Shvidler, a British citizen who is now facing sanctions. A bit further on, at 199, the tech tycoon Mike Lynch, ‘once hailed as Britain’s Bill Gates’, has been extradited to the United States on fraud charges (which he denies). The Tory donor Christopher Moran, at 259, who only has £620 million, £20 million more than King Charles, is the owner of the Chelsea Cloisters, better known as ‘ten floors of whores’.
Whether you’re a steel magnate or a lottery winner, you want to be bigger than the guy next door, and that kind of culture, though not new to Britain, had never seemed closer to what passes for common sense. When this list began there were nine billionaires in the UK; in 2022 there were 177. They were to be encouraged, Peter Mandelson once suggested, so long as they paid their taxes. But they don’t. And can anybody now say, with a straight face, that people on low incomes are in a better place than they were thirty years ago? Behind the nation’s back, and with collusion it might take a generation of reporters and novelists to expose, the interests of profit-makers have undermined those of wage-earners, to the point where it seems almost greedy – a category error – for people to push for decent pay. The Sunday Times Rich List is replete with celebrity energy barons accumulating gold while many millions of people in the UK suffer from fuel poverty or live in damp houses.
‘For some, the rise in billionaire wealth in the UK over the last thirty years is cause for celebration,’ the Equality Trust said recently.
In fact, there exists an entire cottage industry, the Sunday Times Rich List included, devoted to lauding billionaires for their hard work, intelligence and creativity and thanking them for enlarging the economic pie for the rest of us. What this viewpoint fails to recognise is that the explosion in the number of billionaires over the past few decades and accelerating inequality and growing poverty are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.
But the problem is that many people no longer believe this: they believe that richness, like beauty, is a brand of virtue that can’t be argued with and shouldn’t be limited. In that sense, the Rich List is a manifesto for contemporary Britain. ‘I’ve got some nice watches and I love cars and travel,’ says Bob Bull, the bungalow billionaire, ‘but I don’t flash it about.’
I mean, you’ve got to have morals, which is something even the disputatious Hindujas are happy to agree on. Gopichand Hinduja, at 83 the eldest of the family still working, has been renovating the Old War Office on Whitehall, turning it into a mega-deluxe hotel with crazy flats and a penthouse said to be on sale for something in the region of £100 million. A few of the super-rich were recently banned from buying flats in Hinduja’s new building. ‘Rumoured to be Russians’, the Sunday Times reports, they ‘have been shown the door no matter how much they offered’.
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