Richard Bacon is angry. Britain’s richest one per cent are grabbing more of the nation’s wealth than their equivalents in any other European country. Social mobility has stalled. Inequality is rife. What’s worse, not enough people know about it. If Bacon has his way, that’s about to change.
Freed from the shackles of impartiality that came with his BBC contract, the former 5 Live host is to front a one-off Channel 4 show, examining the polarisation of wealth in the UK. He promises it will be passionate, polemical and controversial, adding, “We’re setting ourselves the very modest target of starting a revolution.
“Our wealth gap is the worst in Europe,” he says. “Countries with big inequality gaps have big prison populations, have worse obesity rates, are less trusting, and have higher rates of violence. The gap matters, and we want people to understand that. Inequality is a great issue of our time without people being aware of it. We’re all talking about Ebola and Isis, but this is something that is really affecting our country.”
In How Rich Are You? Bacon will provide the figures for viewers to work out where they stand in the nation’s wealth charts. “Spoiler alert,” he says. “You’re much poorer than you think.” It will be heavy on statistics, with nuggets such as the fact that the five richest families in the country are wealthier than the poorest 12.5 million people combined. “By illustrating how bad it’s got, that leads to awareness. Awareness starts a debate.” He adds, only half-jokingly, “A debate could start a revolution.”
With all this talk of revolution, isn’t he beginning to sound a little like Russell Brand? “That’s the last thing I want to do,” he shudders. “It’s not a left-wing student tirade. I think saying things like ‘Don’t vote’ are very unhelpful. I don’t agree at all with that. Russell has a young following, and if you do what he says, politicians won’t take any notice of you.”
The son of a senior partner in a provincial law firm, Bacon was educated privately at Worksop College, where annual fees for boarders currently stand at £26,000. He owns a five-bedroom house in a fashionable part of north London, which he and his wife bought for £1.45 million in 2007, and which local estate agents now estimate is worth in excess of £3 million. Less charitable viewers may question whether Comrade Bacon has the moral authority to lead the charge against inequality.
“My house has gone up in value by an absolutely ridiculous amount,” he admits. “I am relatively wealthy and I’ve had a lot of luck. But that troubles me and it always has. I remember when I was about 12 and I was looking up at the giant buildings of my school. My dad was a criminal defence solicitor and I had come across some of the children of the people in the local area who he was defending. They were in bedsits and I was in Hogwarts. It really, truly struck me as unfair.”
Bacon describes his father as a “working-class guy” whose horizons were broadened by a grammar school education. While many on the left point to evidence that poorer children achieve lower grades in the counties that harbour England’s 164 remaining grammar schools, Bacon says that he “rather likes” them, and sees their large-scale abolition under successive governments in the 1960s and 70s as a key factor in worsening social mobility.
“They seem to me to be a way of getting poor kids into good universities. I know it’s selective, and there are issues there, but the places at the top universities are going to people from private schools.”
The issue of social mobility is one that particularly exercises him. “Britain is no longer a meritocracy,” he claims. “This country prides itself on the promise that hard work and aspiration can take you anywhere, but it’s just not true any more. It’s harder than ever to climb the ladder, and we want people to know that. If you’re born into the bottom ten per cent, your chances of getting into the top ten per cent are between three and six per cent. The rich just get richer. Wealth begets wealth. The more you have, the more you get.”
After diagnosing the illness, the show will consider a variety of potential cures. Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose weighty tome arguing for a global wealth tax, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, has been hailed as the most important book of the year, will make a pre-recorded appearance. Other economists, of varying political affiliations, will join Bacon in the studio.
“We’re not sitting around saying let’s put a great big tax on wealthy people,” says Bacon. “We’re not communists. It’s not something crazy. We’re just asking, ‘Has the gap got too big?’ Yes, it has. It’s got to a point where it’s out of control and people are going to have to start talking about it, and we’re starting it.”
How Rich Are You? is on tonight (Monday 10th November) at 8.00pm on Channel 4