Magazine article The Spectator

Why the Idle Rich Are No Longer with Us

Magazine article The Spectator

Why the Idle Rich Are No Longer with Us

Article excerpt

Is this the first age when the rich work harder than the poor? My question is prompted by two observations. The first is that most people in Third World countries sit around all day with nothing to do, and now the poor in the rich countries are joining them. Indolence -- enforced or chosen - is the established order in Britain's 'sink' council estates. The labouring poor are a diminishing class.

As they dwindle, a long-established minority is mushrooming in size: the working rich. That is my second observation reinforced by an arresting article in these pages last week (`Hived off hyphens', 16 May). The double-barrelled surname, suspects Damien McCrystal, is heading for extinction. Mr McCrystal was too polite to spell out the main reason for this, but single-barrelled readers will be bright enough to read between the lines: for the first time in Britain we are beginning to bracket status with competence, and double-barrelled individuals are presumed to lack the latter. To get rich or stay rich takes application these days.

First to Eritrea. For Eritrea you may read Bolivia, Kenya, Tanzania and Cuba, all of which I have visited in recent years. When I was a child an expression was current to describe hard, sweated labour: `working like a black' suggested vigorous and protracted effort. Doubtless the phrase dates from the days of slavery and might be thought insulting today. It is inaccurate now anyway. Blacks in black countries, like people of every colour in most poor countries, do not work hard at all. Most of them have little to do. The Third World does not go out in the midday sun.

The remark must immediately be amplified if it is not to give offence. I am not suggesting that people in poor countries are lazy. Evidence is to the contrary: when work is offered for reward the poor everywhere seize it with enthusiasm. Nor am I suggesting (as Britons abroad like to drawl) that life is easy in the Third World where the natives sit around under mango trees waiting for the ripe fruit to drop, whereas Englishmen `detest a siesta', etc. That may be the appearance but it is an illusion. Indolence is not the choice of most of the world's indolent. Many in most poor countries lead dispiritingly bleak lives, lack much, sicken often, die young, and never try to break out of it because most humans don't anywhere.

But it is just not true that being a peasant farmer (which is what most of the world's poor are) is hard work. The occupation does involve short periods of back-breaking labour and living conditions which are generally crude and often uncomfortable. Life may be brutish. For women in particular (women do most of what we call `man's work' in the world) life is tough. But everyone sleeps all night, and many, especially men, sleep for much of the day, too. People talk a great deal, fight a bit, make love with depressing frequency, chew a large quantity of betel nuts, and drink much coffee and tea (and in Africa, beer) very slowly. They do everything very slowly. I do not idealise such a state, nor for a moment do I envy those who must endure it, but neither by hand nor by brain are these - in anything but a Marxist's fantasy - the workers of the world.

The workers of the world live in Dagenham, Swansea and Surrey; they toil by hand and brain in Bremen and Frankfurt; they swarm from the Tube at Mansion House; they commute from Connecticut; pack the railway carriages from Southend; pore over briefing packs in the back of limos on the M4 at dawn; clock on and off in their millions in Yokohama, Hong Kong or Seoul, and phone home with the news that they're working late, again, in Lyon or Atlanta. …

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