There are two things, it is said, that an Englishman will never admit to: being drunk and being rich. So it is small wonder that John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, fell into an elephant trap when he defined the “rich” as those earning more than about £70,000 a year. For a Labour politician—particularly a Corbynite one—to suggest that only those earning in the top 5 per cent of taxpayers could be considered a bit rich was considered, well, a bit rich by a large and vocal number of the 95 per cent, who noted that an MP’s starting salary is £74,000. Yet it was also greeted with almost equal horror by those in the 5 per cent who very much don’t like to think of themselves as rich.
I don’t ride around in a Rolls-Royce, they howled. I work jolly hard for what I have, they harrumphed. Children don’t feed themselves, they moaned. McDonnell’s problem, I’d submit, was not so much with how he sliced the statistics, as with his choice of word. “Rich” is, so to speak, loaded. It carries with it a connotation of unearned excess. And so those who see the cut-off as being well before £70,000 were angry, at root, for a similar reason to those who see the cut-off as being well above it.
Not admitting to being rich or drunk has the same linguistic knock-on effects. Just as we like to say that an alcoholic is someone who drinks a good deal more than you, we think that “rich” is a term to be applied to someone who earns (or owns) a good deal more than you. Think of the qualifiers with which the term flocks: you are “filthy rich,” “stinking rich” or “disgustingly rich.” You are as “rich as Croesus”; you are the silk-hatted Bradford millionaire; Rich Uncle Pennybags on the Monopoly board with the topper and the waistcoat, below. Rich is a boo-word. Midas is not seen as a person to be emulated. Rich food gives you indigestion.
Hence the peculiar and slightly cherishable series of euphemisms with which the rich refer to themselves, and with which the industry that courts them seeks to frame their good fortune. We don’t like to talk of anything so blunt as being rich. We talk, rather, of “wealth,” with its connotations of bounty and prosperity; money as a satisfying and wholesome sort of bulging of the barns after a good harvest. We might modestly admit to “doing all right,” or “getting by”; we might even call ourselves “fortunate” or, if pressed, “reasonably prosperous.”
Spear’s magazine addresses itself to the sorts of people whose wristwatches cost more than your car, refers to its readership as HNWs or UHNWs (for High Net Worth or Ultra-High Net Worth individuals). The W is—appreciatively—not for “wealth” but, the higher compliment, for “worth.” We move, here, in a world of gracious acronyms. “Rich” conjures up Harry Enfield’s brilliantly vulgar 1980s character Loadsamoney, waving his wads of cash in the audience’s face: “All you need to know about politics, right, is that Missis Fatcher done a lot of good for the country, but you wouldn’t wanna shag it…” “Wealth” is the discreet swish of a tastefully-tailored suit.
One of the few people I’ve come across who would describe themselves as having been rich is the writer Julie Burchill, who during her heyday as a Fleet Street columnist certainly did pull in the bawbees. But it is quite in keeping with her pleasure in flouting bourgeois norms that she’d boast of being rich, and of spending “like a sailor on shore leave” on her less well-off friends, not to mention charities, or down and outs (“I’d rather go to the ATM than give coins to a beggar—how disrespectful.”)
But nope, not for most people. “Rich” is always somebody else. I’m reminded of the story told of Walter Matthau by his old friend Jack Lemmon. Matthau had slipped and broken his collarbone. He was lying on the floor in agony: “I’m going to die… I’m going to die…” Lemmon took off his jacket, folded it and tenderly slipped it under his friend’s head. “Are you comfortable?” he asked.
Matthau replied, from the floor: “I make a living.”