Sarah Sands: The rich are more visible, so there's more to dislike


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How far could Stephen Hester's bonus stretch? It might pay for soldiers in Afghanistan, nurses, home helps, care workers. But it might not cover a Nat Rothschild birthday party. Wealth is relative, as well as exotic.

Rothschild is fighting a libel case against the Daily Mail. It involves a short trip he made with Peter Mandelson to Siberia: was it professional or recreational? To anyone who is not a lawyer, does it matter? It is the detail of the trip that is fascinating. If the public picture the architect of New Labour now, he is wearing a felt hat and being thrashed by birch twigs.

Mandelson may legitimately protest that this is a traditional local treatment and a matchless cure for jet lag, but it is lost on the British population. We just think, the rich are different.

For that reason we're hard pressed to judge whether a trip to an aluminium smelter is work or play. If you spend your time with models and super yachts, it could be a welcome break. To the rest of us, it would be more relaxing to head to the beach.

Simon Cowell was criticised by his brother recently for driving a "get-rich-quick culture". Financial speculation is still the quickest way of all. But we can't help noticing that this is where the rich are, again, fabulously different.

It is much easier to make a fortune if you already have one. You can take risks. You can buy expensive property or art or gold. You can spend your time with other very rich people or tax lawyers, in cumulative investments.

Envy and discontent, as popular philosophers remind us, is founded on proximity. If a friend or neighbour is swishing around in cash, it hurts. If the head of a banking dynasty flies about in a private jet it barely registers. The lives of the super rich seem so far away, usually at least as far as Switzerland.

Yet suddenly it is as if we were possessed of the kind of high powered zoom lenses that Lord Leveson would like to see the back of. The wealth gap is of urgent and agonising concern.

I was initially surprised by the rage directed as Stephen Hester. It was irrational. He is the solution to Fred Goodwin, not the sequel. If he is putting the bank in order, why do we, the shareholders, want to tear him limb from limb?

But then I realised it was not a scientific process, but a convulsion. Something has gone amiss with capitalism and Stephen Hester is on the wrong side of the argument, along with Mark Thompson, the director- general of the BBC, and Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate.

Wealth is no longer a sign of value, but of unjustifiable greed.

Now the wealthy whistleblower of the rich, Warren Buffett, has exposed the lot of them. The rich are overpaid.

The prophecy of Nehru has become the conventional wisdom of Davos: "The forces in a capitalist society, if left unchecked, tend to make the rich richer and the poor poorer." The trickle-down effect has turned out to be a drought.

It is that much harder to be relaxed about people getting filthy rich. Everyone is jumpier now. I don't think it is a matter for the guillotine, but there's no harm in the rich feeling our hot curious breath on their necks.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard