About 30 years ago, shortly after I joined London’s The Sunday Times as deputy editor, I had the idea of publishing a list of Britain’s richest men (they were almost all men in those days). It wasn’t an original idea – I had just been to the United States, where the latest Forbes rich list had been recently published, and everywhere I went people were talking about it. There was keen competition to be in it, and great jealousy if someone was above you.
I had actually tried it before, when I was the City editor of the Sunday Telegraph, and I allotted a young researcher, Philip Beresford, to work on it, aiming to limit it (as Fortune did in its early days) to 100 names. Within days I was receiving angry phone calls and lawyers’ letters from people who were determined they were not going to be on the list under any circumstances – and if their names did appear they would remove their advertising, boycott the paper and pursue us through the courts. A friend, who would have ranked somewhere around the middle, called to say he would never speak to me again if he was mentioned.
I remember one particular call from a former Scotland Yard detective who told me he was the security adviser for the Sainsbury family, who we had tentatively put near the top (today they are not even in the top 100). “What you are proposing to publish, Mr Fallon, amounts to a kidnappers’ charter. The sons and daughters of everyone on that list will be in danger.” He indicated he was already well down the road to providing armoured vehicles and permanent bodyguards for the younger generation.
When the proprietor, Lord Hartwell, called to say he was being lobbied ferociously by the rich and famous and was I sure the exercise was worthwhile, I gave up. He was quite prepared to withstand any pressure, but we were not doing terribly well in our list-making: information was sparse in those days, and basically all we had was the published shareholdings of directors in public companies and unpublished accounts for private companies filed in the dusty depths of Companies House, which required weeks and months of trawling.
At The Sunday Times I had more resources, and backed by the editor Andrew Neil (and by my new proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, who was a great enthusiast), I brought Mr Beresford across to work on a more detailed list, the first of which we published in 1989. Those early lists, imperfect though they were (and still are), provide a wonderful snapshot of Britain towards the end of the Thatcher era: the 1991 top 400 featured one sovereign (the queen), 13 dukes (out of 24), eight marquesses, 21 earls and countesses (out of 156), 12 viscounts (out of 27), 26 barons and one baroness – 86 aristocrats in all, mostly with inherited wealth, more than a fifth of the total. There were 79 Old Etonians, 12 Old Harrovians and three Old Wykehamists, and to round out this picture of the British establishment, there were 42 members of White’s, London’s most exclusive gentleman’s club, and 29 members of the Turf Club. We calculated that between them, the people on our list owned 4.4 million acres of land, nearly 10 per cent of the total land area of the United Kingdom.
This week The Sunday Times published its latest list, still compiled by Mr Beresford, which shows a vastly changed landscape. For a start only one of the top 10, the Duke of Westminster (No 6), is a through-and-through Brit. Of the others, the Reuben brothers, who rank No 1 with a wealth of £13.1bn (Dh69.4bn), were born in Mumbai, as were the Hinduja brothers at No 2. Len Blavatnik is an American-born Russian who lives in London, as is Alisher Usmanov. The Rausing family (which owns Tetra Pak) are basically Swedish, and Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken owes her £9.1bn fortune to her inheritance of the Dutch brewery business.
Kirsty Bertarelli, who ranks fifth with nearly £10bn, was actually a Miss UK but she entered the list only by marrying the pharmaceutical billionaire Ernesto, who is an Italian.
Further down there are three South Africans, including a fascinating newcomer called Christo Wiese, in for the first time at £4bn, and Nicky Oppenheimer, who managed to extract the family fortune from De Beers and Anglo American before the crash.
Just about the only true Brits who have created their own businesses are the technological genius James Dyson (17) and the Virgin Group’s Richard Branson at 19.
In an era when wealth and income disparity have become the biggest social topic of the day, as evidenced by the extraordinary success of Thomas Piketty’s unreadable best-seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century, there is something very healthy about the constantly changing kaleidoscope and dynamism of Britain’s wealthy. It was not what we expected when we started out all those years ago.
Ivan Fallon is a former business editor of The Sunday Times.
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