The rich man in his castle

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6970.1674 (Published 24 December 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:1674
  1. Peter Townsend
  1. Peter Townsend Emeritus professor Social Policy and Social Planning, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TN

    In Britain inequality is spiralling out of control

    At a time when there are vehement denunciations of its so called underclass Britain is in fact energetically restoring its overclass.*RF 1-3* The trend characteristic of most of the 20th century—of a slowly shrinking share of aggregate wealth commanded by the richest 5% and 10%—is now in reverse.1 4 5

    This year has seen recurring reports of the swelling salaries and breathtaking pronouncements of rich people. Early this month Iain Vallance, the chairman of British Telecom, described his salary—which, with additions, is now in excess of pounds sterling750 000, as “modest.” By comparison with what is going on at the top of Britain's hierarchy in the 75 largest nonfinancial companies perhaps he was right: average salaries of senior executives now range between pounds sterling200 000 and pounds sterling505 000, and each executive may receive average annual bonuses of 15% to 20% of salary, substantial share options, “top hat” pensions, and redundancy payments going into six and seven figures.5

    The cultural and structural changes of the past 20 years are fostering attitudes to wealth and to the responsibilities it brings that evoke memories of the early days of the industrial revolution—before the Protestant ethic had taken hold and the welfare state had been established. In those days charity was supposed to begin at home but was too grudging, small scale, and sporadic to do anything for widespread destitution. The experience of poverty at the turn of the century …

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