The terrible burden of being so wealthy

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Monday 05 October 2015 01:12

GORDON BROWN believes in a society that promotes both fairness and enterprise. In this brave New Labour world, the rich (on the right and left) can enjoy their wealth without guilt. After all, the poor will, in the name of fairness, get their crumbs, along with instructions on how to use them prudently so that they have some left over for their old age. Oh Happy State to be in.

Not so, it seems. The gods have created new reasons for people to be cheerless. It is deeply unfashionable to feel any pity for the homeless and deprived, but dollops of sympathy are now demanded by those who seem to have it all. Upper-middle-class angst is everywhere as the successful try to cope with long hours at work and The Ivy restaurant; demanding nannies; private schools that make it so hard for your little honey to get in; bloody nuisance disputes with France that make one uncomfortable drinking fine French wines; too much loveless sex; and the unbearable lightness of being in with the right crowd.

Take the example of the usually sensible and very bright Cherie Blair. This week she was reportedly found complaining that she is having to spend much too much of her own money on designer clothes in order to portray a positive image of Britain. Her visit to the Commonwealth summit this week included not only many expensive gowns, but her personal Mayfair hairdresser, Andre Suard, who was flown over and kept on hand at a cost of pounds 2,000.

Tony, too, has expressed frustration at how much it costs to host fancy parties at 10 Downing Street, because the official entertainment budget is unreasonably low and official expenses are strictly controlled.

Their joint earnings must amount to at least pounds 300,000 a year, and even if all this burns large holes in their pockets, at least the Blairs know that replenishment will continue for a good many years.

It is this worry that what they have is not enough that I find extraordinary. Posh Spice came with the same anxiety this Monday when she was seen buying bathroom suites at a low-cost warehouse on the North Circular Road. She explained that having seven bathrooms meant a considerable financial burden, and that she was all too aware how her millions could so easily be washed away down a plughole unless she was properly thrifty.

But even more perplexing for me is this compulsion that intelligent people such as Cherie Blair and Peter Mandelson feel, to impress wealthy bean-brains. As if they cannot be themselves, live within their means, and get the respect that they surely deserve.

If this is what they genuinely feel, then they do deserve some sympathy, although I resent this even as I write it, because such fears should be conquered and not humoured.

As a Ugandan Asian whose family, untypically, was often very poor (I have described in my autobiography No Place Like Home how this meant sharing a bed with my parents until puberty, and learning how to make home-made sanitary pads from scraps begged from the tailor downstairs) I myself used to feel painfully unworthy. But my mother taught me how to laugh at the Wabenzi (Swahili for people with Mercedes cars) and make them feel inferior. They can make money, she said, but this brings afflictions - dissatisfaction, envy, and unbelievable stupidity, which enable wily merchants to sell them all kinds of goods they don't need or even like, but feel they must have.

In Japan they say: "He is poor who does not feel content." With soaring numbers of affluent malcontents coming up from the streets, perhaps we need a report from the Office of National Statistics to explore this worrying new poverty trap in our midst, and then Gordon will have yet another reason to indulge the already spoilt.

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