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…