Why is the existence of extreme inequality in Britain treated as headline news? Given that a wide gulf between rich and poor is a characteristic feature of capitalist societies, inequality should not come as a surprise to anyone. A walk or drive around virtually any large city is enough to make it apparent.
Yet Oxfam’s estimate that Britain’s five richest families own more wealth than the poorest 20 per cent of the population seems to have captured the media’s imagination. This follows on from the huge public-relations success of an earlier Oxfam report on global inequality.
Oxfam has simply added a rough calculation of the scale of wealth inequality to the pre-existing discussion. It is probably as good a guess as any, but it is only conjecture. For one thing, the rich do not disclose the extent of their wealth to the public, and in any case the exact amount is constantly fluctuating. The wealthy even employ experts to estimate the changing worth of their portfolios of property, shares, artworks, super yachts, and the like.
Oxfam’s estimates have caught the imagination because they chime with a contemporary obsession among politicians and the media with excessive inequality. This preoccupation is not confined to those loosely identified as on the left, such as US president Barack Obama or Ed Miliband, the UK Labour Party leader.
Those often classified as on the right are just as keen to express concerns about the wide gulf between rich and poor. David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative prime minister, has often warned of the dangers of inequality. For example, in a speech at last year’s Lord Mayor’s Banquet no less, he said that ‘inequality is not just wrong – it fundamentally disadvantages our economy’. (It is ironic that he should have started his speech by addressing: ‘My lord mayor, my late lord mayor, your grace, my lord chancellor, your excellencies, my lords, aldermen, sheriffs, chief commoner, ladies and gentlemen.’). Similarly The Economist, a publication with a reputation for being at the vanguard of free-market thinking, has called for a ‘new progressivism’ to counter excessive inequality and cronyism. In contrast, it is hard to find anyone offering an unabashed conservative defence of inequality and social hierarchy.