20 MAY 1995, Page 10


This house believes you should make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness


By the time you read this, I shall have delivered a speech at the Cambridge Union opposing the motion that 'This House would stamp on the rich'. I suspect I shall lose, and I fear that, in a case of mistaken identity, I shall be stamped on myself. If so, good-bye, I am not sorry to have sacrificed myself in obedience to the Biblical doc- trine: 'Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness'.

It has been a beautiful friendship. Almost every penny I have ever earned has come from the rich. First from Lord Hartwell at the Daily Telegraph; then, at The Spectator, from Mr Algy Cluff, Mr James Fairfax and Mr Conrad Black; for my former column at the Daily Express from Lord Stevens; and now, again at the Sunday Telegraph, from Mr Black. Until the present rising circulation of the Sunday Telegraph enabled it to 'wash its face', the chief financial beneficiary of the relation- ship has been me. Throughout my time at The Spectator, the magazine lost roughly £350,000 a year. It is true that this loss became smaller and smaller as a percent- age of turnover, and that the capital value of the paper constantly increased so that each owner was able to sell it on for more than he paid for it. I like to think that these lean years paved the way for the magazine's current, staggering profitability.

But it is fair to say that, in the 1980s, my association with rich men made them poor- er. While I cannot claim that they never protested about this, they were all very tol- erant about it, so naturally I do not want to stamp on them.

Is this such an uncommon experience? Are there really many people who can truthfully say that their association with the rich has damaged them simply because of their wealth (as opposed to their individual characters)?

Certainly not the undergraduates of Cambridge University, whose 700-year association with the rich has insured its pre- eminence. Certainly not the patients of St Bartholomew's Hospital, who from 1123 to 1945 were treated free because the rich of the City of London paid for them, and who, because the hospital was nationalised, will soon find that they have no hospital at all. Certainly not any church, or mosque or syna- gogue, all of which depend on the rich help- ing the poor. Certainly not, before the public subsidies of the second half of the 20th cen- tury, any artist who ever found a patron. The same applies even in neighbourly relations. Hayek wrote that the millionaire who is one's next-door neighbour has much less power over one than the most lowly bureaucrat, which is true. He might have added that such power as the millionaire does have will tend to be benign. His pres- ence and investment will help to increase the value of one's own property and improve the physical quality of the area. His money will tend to help local charities. His superfluities will tend to supply others' wants: he will let your children use his ten- nis court or lend his garden for the local fête. Even if he is not at all a nice person, his money is a source of independence against the over-weening power of the pub- lic authorities, and that tends to help the ordinary citizen. This might not be true if the rich were a small, special caste, owning men's labour as if they were slaves, but this has not been the case in the West for a long time. The rich are just larger editions of what most of us in modern bourgeois soci- ety are.

Yet people really do want to stamp on the rich more than ever, it seems. Which creates a strange context for 'Britain's Richest 400', the 'seventh annual survey of Britain's rich', published by the Sunday Times last Sunday.

There have always been certain problems with this venture. Robert Maxwell came eighth in the entire thing as recently as 1991 — which eventually provoked a mum- bled apology from the compilers that they had failed to take his debts into account. The Queen, valued at £7,000 million in 1991, now comes in at £450 million, due to a revised basis of calculation.

But now there is a new difficulty. The list was started in the late 1980s presumably to celebrate the dynamic, wealth-creating, upwardly mobile society of Andrew Neil's dreams and to inspire readers with the spir- it of emulation. This I understand, is what `For heaven's sake, father, don't let him manipulate you.' happens with the Fortune 500 in the Unit- ed States.

If this ever worked here, it does not now. What would Sunday Times readers use this list for? To stamp on? To find people worth burgling? Advertisers clearly asked themselves the same question and stayed away, except for a poignant entry crammed on the first page. 'Success Brings It's [sic] Own Rewards,' it said, under a picture of a timber-framed swimming-pool cover, 'An indoor pool thoughtfully designed will pro- vide a stunning environment for relaxation and healthy swimming exercise.' Is that all that one can expect to gain nowadays from wonderful, wonderful wealth creation? One longs for the good, old-fashioned empty ostentation, the Timon's villa of which Pope complained, 'Where all cry out, "What sums are thrown away!" ' The rich must be living in fear.

`Good,' my Cambridge opponents mny be exclaiming, 'Serves them right!' But what serves them 'right' will serve the rest of us very badly indeed. Nothing that hurts the rich can be done without hurting the rest of us, either directly by putting up our taxes too or restricting our rights of proper- ty or inheritance, or indirectly, by driving the rich from our midst and so depriving us of their charity, their investment, their readiness to employ our children as butler, editor of The Spectator and so on. Anyway, the rich are punished without any interfer- ence from a Labour government. Most of us carry round the idea that Christianity, like most religions, lays a heavy duty on the rich to use their wealth well, but that, so used, its possession is justified. What about the much more uncomfortable notion that wealth is punished by God automatically? For this I turn to that well-known liberation theologian Enoch Powell, who once anal- ysed the story of Dives and Lazarus (which appears, perplexingly, in the same chapter of Luke as the bit about making friends with the mammon of unrighteousness). Mr Powell's point is that Dives goes to hell only because he is rich and Lazarus to heaven only because he is poor, not for any vice or virtue in either. If only we still believed in an afterlife, if only we could persuade ourselves that wealth is really hell, perhaps we could rid ourselves of the unattractive desire to stamp on the rich, and all agree that Mr Blair's first act in office should be to cut the top rate of income tax to 25 per cent.