The Poor List would make most unedifying reading

EVER SINCE the Greeks met in the forum to mutter about the wealth of Croesus, and Petronius satirised the table manners and conspicuous consumption of the Roman nouveau riche in the Satyrikon, wealth has been a spectator sport. Why else should we care who is on the newly published 1999 rich list, unless we are in the irksome position of the Queen, who has fallen from number one in 1989 to a mere equal 87th with a bookmaker and a property developer; or the more enviable one of the man running a hotly traded software company at the age of 23?

The last week has seen the publication of further hit parades of Asian wealth in Britain, and a pecking-order of young millionaires. All the tables and cross-references, the snakes-and-ladders diagrams and graphs, reflect two basic reasons why we give a damn.

The first is the sheer fascination with figures - the fetishism that wealth arouses in its own right. Bill Gates's Microsoft is valued at some pounds 36bn. But very close behind him is another pounds 30bn-plus contender - the Robson Watson family of retailers. So even Gates does not enjoy the absolute dominance of Rockefeller in the America of his day.

Nor do the new rich exude the glamour and savoir-faire that were typical of wealthy America, or of Britain in the Thirties. There are some appalling haircuts in the UK top 10. You could no longer assume, as did Beverly Nichols when writing his lyrical ode to privileged pre-war society, Merry Hall, that this lot would embody "The tinkling laughter of champagne, the music which goes faster and faster, the sheer profusion of white - white dresses, white roses, white tablecloths - the dizzy gay life of the old houses".

Wealth seems less fun than it used to be. It is certainly more democratic. The second reason why we are intrigued by the precise distribution of riches is that the lists provide route maps to society and social mobility. Two hundred years ago, the monied elite in Britain consisted of landowners whose resources were inseparable from their place in the political hierarchy of the land. There was no doubt about the correlation between wealth and power.

Today the picture is far more complex. The assumptions we could readily make 20 years ago, about a rich person being overwhelmingly likely to prefer a Conservative to a Labour government, no longer hold true. Maybe I should know the political leanings of Hans Rausing, the Swedish-born owner of the Tetra Pak packaging company, who is on the top rung of the British wealth ladder, valued at pounds 3.4bn. Or then again, maybe he has none, or chooses not to act on them.

Nor do we any longer find the spectacle of a Labour millionaire to be unnatural. For the Tories, this breaking of the link between wealth and party loyalty is another source of anxiety about their future. William Hague is relaunching himself upon an unsuspecting (so far wholly uninterested) public as an ordinary bloke in the hope of exploiting suspicions that Blairite Labour is too attached to the wealthy and successful to be truly concerned with Mr and Mrs Ordinary. The old identity of Conservatism as a buoyant and confident creed, is shifting to one that is in danger of feeding only on resentments.

At a certain point, however, wealth reaches a critical mass at which it accrues power beyond that of mere governments. The new Internet wealth creators have the advantage of operating in a non-territorial world, which makes it far harder to control their expansion. Developed capitalism, with its emphasis on lifting barriers to enterprise, exposes governments to the danger of having their power as regulators and tax-raisers eroded by the entrepreneurs it set free. Would you place your bet on governments finding new ways to levy taxes on Internet transactions, or on the apprentice masters of the universe finding a way round them?

The battle between elected governments and business may well be the dominant one of the next century. In Russia, we have just seen a Punch and Judy version in the arrest warrant issued for Boris Berezovsky, one of the country's most powerful oligarchs, who finds himself in enforced, if luxurious, exile because of the shift in power relations between Prime Minister Primakov and the waning Boris Yeltsin.

You knew it wouldn't be long before the question was raised: if more of us are getting richer, how come we ain't happy? This dogged linkage reflects centuries of philosophical ideals and conflicts. People uncomfortable with the very idea of wealth are following in the tradition of Plato, Aristotle and the parts of classical idealism that hold that money is an unbalancing force, an alienation from the good and pure life - a bias reflected in the biblical simile between camels passing through the eye of a needle and rich men getting into the kingdom of heaven, and in Marx's aversion to accumulation .

It took Adam Smith, with his scepticism of classical philosophy and astute analysis of the usefulness of wealth creation, to change the balance of the argument in the last century towards the rich, a trend that has been magnified by the more democratic nature of wealth since the Second World War. In terms of their public image and popularity, the new rich have never had it so good. We are more likely to reserve our grumbling envy for inherited wealth. I have a peculiar aversion, for instance, to spending any money in the furniture shop owned by David Linley, on the grounds that it is not the place of a meritocrat to add to the wealth of royalty.

Plato may have been too rarefied in his view of the dangers of wealth for human nature. But his instinct that money is not the alpha and omega of a man or his society was quite correct. If we tried to compile a list of the poorest hundred people in Britain, the obvious contrast with the rich list would be the lack of variety of circumstances and backgrounds among the destitute.

While the rich are drawn from an ever wider social sphere, the very poor stay very poor for a depressingly similar cast of reasons - poor parents, poor housing, poor schools, poor diets, poor expectations. Which homeless drug addict, which child of incapable, cruel or absent parents would we choose to include when there are so many of equal misery to qualify?

Unlike the very rich, who have names and addresses, the very poor are anonymous, which is all the more reason to remember them.

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