‘Appalling…absolutely appalling,’ thundered the 11th Duke of Devonshire down the phone in 1983 as I – then a junior reporter on the venerable Sunday Telegraph – asked him how much he was worth as we were compiling a list of the richest people in Britain. I tentatively suggested to his Grace that his asset wealth could be in the order of £500m. A silence ensued, followed by, ‘I will have to have a word with your proprietor.’ Sure enough the Duke phoned his old Etonian chum and then Telegraph proprietor Lord Hartwell. Within a couple of hours, the project was squashed by proprietorial edict.
Fast forward 33 years and we have the bizarre sight of the prime minister revealing his tax details, with other politicians falling in line too, as a result of Panamagate and the leaking of 11 million documents relating to the tax arrangements of the rich and powerful. There is even talk of all tax returns being made available online Scandinavian-style. How the world has changed.
So how have we arrived at this and can I modestly claim some small role in those changing attitudes? For since 1989 up until this month, I have compiled The Sunday Times Rich List, having moved from the squeamish Telegraph.
By 1989, the Big Bang in the City was three years old, and starting to throw up some decent-sized fortunes. Richard Branson had already been in business for 20 years in 1989 epitomising the new entrepreneurial culture that was thrusting through the ranks of old money. Sir Richard is still there and has pushed his way to the top 20 in the latest Sunday Times list, worth over £4.5bn.
As the new money mushroomed, it began to replace old money. That first list was dominated by Old Etonians and around two-thirds was inherited wealth. Contrast that to recent lists where the self-made have swollen to 75% or more of the total.
Many of the newly monied, particularly those in their 30s and 40s, have told me that they read my early lists and felt inspired enough to want to join the ranks. Can the same be said for the rest of Britain, indeed the rest of the world? Judging by the fury over the Panama leaks, one wonders why the lampposts of Berkeley Square are not groaning under the weight of hanged hedgies, dispatched with revolutionary justice by Robespierre-like zealots.
For there is no doubt that the rich are getting richer as the rest of us feel poorer. Only once or twice in the list's history, have we seen a diminution in the total wealth of the Rich List members (and none in recent years). My last one, with a record wealth of nearly £575bn for the 1,000 listed is proof that there is plenty of wonga out there.
But I think the public can distinguish between what are seen as the deserving and the undeserving rich. They hate the oligarchs buying up London (unless they buy a Premier League football team too), hedge funders, bankers, trustafarians or the bosses of large companies and utilities seemingly rewarded for failure.
But their local tycoon, who has made his or her fortune by good old-fashioned elbow grease and risk-taking, is regarded with affection. So when Plymouth’s very own Del Boy Trotter, retail billionaire Chris Dawson, opened one of his Range stores recently the area was swamped with well-wishers. ‘You would have thought I was Wayne Rooney,’ he told me, awed at the evident respect for a local lad made good.
It is the same internationally. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, from the right and left in the US election, may rage against Wall Street, but there is no public appetite to go after the tech titans of Silicon Valley or the entrepreneurs who make up the Forbes 400 list. Such lists are, of course, now common in virtually every country, even those with a tightly regulated press. While the Russian rich list is a dangerous business (one compiler was assassinated after enraging a Mafia boss when probing his wealth), in China there is a very different climate.
Rupert Hoogewerf (a contemporary of David Cameron at Eton) produces the Hurun Report every year on Chinese wealth. When we meet up, my first question is always, ‘Why haven’t the secret police closed you down yet, as you are obviously showing up the huge wealth gap?’ He shows me the clips from awards ceremonies that he has initiated. With him on the platform, there is number one, three, five and seven in the last list – some $70bn or more of wealth.
The Chinese population apparently love it and want to get on his list, too. He must be yet another safety valve for the increasingly fearful leadership. So much for class war in a nominally communist dictatorship.
The real class warriors may, of course, rage that we are pandering to the celebrity culture, and filling the workers with false consciousness. Happily using our figures on the hugely wealthy, they will no doubt point out that if the rich were squeezed so that £575bn of pips came out, to misquote Denis Healey, then all would be well with the NHS, education, and so on. All I can say to counter that is that around 90% of the wealth is not liquid, it is tied up in the businesses that the current rich or previous generations have built. Squeezing would simply destroy them, sacrificed on the altar of envy.
So there we have it. The left hate the Rich List for trumpeting the cause of the wealthy. The Duke of Devonshire and his class think we are appalling Bolshevik agitators stirring up class envy. Attacked from both flanks is a good position to be in for my successor, who is now embarking on the 29th Sunday Times Rich List.
Philip Beresford has compiled The Sunday Times Rich List since 1989. He is a former editor of MT and compiles Britain's Top 100 Entrepreneurs. Follow him on twitter at @philipberesford