IT’S BEEN A TOUGH old decade for the capitalist system. Everything about our economy appears acutely dysfunctional; rising living standards are a thing of the past; and the old Thatcherite ideologies are being binned, even by centre-right governments. But capitalists themselves carry on regardless. For all the collectivist gesturing of the pandemic (“clap for carers”), it’s billionaires who pocketed the windfalls.
Naturally, Scotland is no exception. The Sunday Times Rich List shows some extraordinary dividends for the super-elite. Scotland’s billionaire wealth stood at £2.7 billion a decade ago; as late as 2019, it was £17.2 billion; and now, two years on, it stands at £22.4 billion. It’s worth taking a second to breathe, read those figures again and wonder what has become of this self-consciously progressive nation. In a decade where virtually everyone saw their living standards stagnate, our super-rich pigged themselves into a stupor.
Topping the list is Anders Povlsen, who is not just Scotland’s biggest landowner but also the largest shareholder in (among others) Asos and thus the face of Nordic fast fashion. Last year the GMB union accused Asos of “playing Russian roulette” with the lives of warehouse workers, who reported being “frightened for their families as well as themselves” due to a failure to impose social distancing. In Barnsley, there was a staff walkout over safety fears. Asos, in turn, accused critics of “[creating] panic and hysteria in an already uncertain time”.
Thankfully, none of this alarmism seems to have afflicted Povlsen himself. His 25 percent stake in Asos surged by £1.17 billion over the past year, putting his wealth at £6 billion.
The above is a case study in how little has changed. Superficially, we live in a defiantly post-Thatcherite era: it’s no longer fashionable to celebrate a culture of winners and losers, to admire plutocrats and condemn the poor as weaklings. Today’s dominant cultural ideology exhorts us to “be kind”, care for others, admire the struggles of the oppressed and question privilege. Elite culture’s hate figure (or fixation) is Donald Trump, the boorish tycoon who mocks the oppressed and builds shiny gold towers to celebrate success.
But the dominant kindness seems eerily compatible with vast accumulations of wealth. Thus, evidence of covid-profiteering on the Sunday Times Rich List will likely attract little controversy in Scotland’s centre-left parliament. After all, we’re grown up and accustomed to the way of the world: the rich get richer, yada yada, but what can we do about it? Most view this as a natural phenomenon rather like the ageing process or a nasty spell of weather: hardly something to celebrate, but to complain would be absurd.
And who, after all, will question this bonanza? The Scottish Labour Party, itself led by the scion of a millionaire family? Or the SNP, whose organic intellectuals take their marching orders from Angus Grossart? So here’s to 2031, and the question, how much more can they accumulate over another decade of dismal economic failure?