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22 May 2023

Public think super rich are now more powerful than governments

The public also see family background as the biggest determinant of someone’s wealth


The richest 1% in society are now seen as holding more power than national governments, according to new research carried out by a cross-party group of MPs.

39% of the UK public rank the very rich as having the most power, compared with 24% who say the same about governments.

This appears a reversal of the situation five years ago. Back in 2018, when asked to pick the most powerful from a list, the public were more likely to say governments (33%), rather than the very wealthy (29%), were most powerful (see notes for shift in methodological approach).

When asked what people fear if global inequality were to rise, a majority (54%) say they would be worried about the super rich having unfair influence on government policies – the top response given – while just under half (49%) say they fear rising levels of corruption.

The findings are part of a major new research programme led by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth, in partnership with the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Fairness Foundation, to mark the tenth anniversary of Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster, Capital in the 21st Century.

The research also looks at generational attitudes to wealth inequality, as well as whether the public see individual hard work or someone’s background as most important in determining their wealth.

The public see family background as the biggest determinant of someone’s wealth

Three-quarters (73%) of the public say that whether someone comes from a wealthy family or not is the most important explanation for why differences in wealth exist in society – the top answer given.

Whether they have useful networks or not (41%) and access to a good education (40%) are the next most common answers, ahead of how hard people work (35%) and the level of individual talent or natural ability someone has (26%).

Overall, the public are most likely to see factors relating to people’s social background as the biggest determinants of their wealth, rather than factors linked to individual character.

The research also shows the public are relatively divided on whether the very wealthy getting richer is cause for concern.

44% say they are worried about the top 1% of the world’s people becoming richer in absolute terms, compared with 36% who say they are neither relaxed nor worried, and 9% who say they are relaxed.

Gen Z are the least concerned about growing wealth inequality

Despite a common perception that young people are especially concerned about social justice issues, as well as their greater likelihood of being economically disadvantaged themselves, the youngest generation – Gen Z – are in fact least concerned about the wealth gap in Britain and globally:

  • 44% of Gen Z think the gap between those with high wealth and those with little wealth should be reduced – far lower than the share of Millennials (59%), Gen X (61%) and Baby Boomers (62%) who say the same.
  • A third (33%) of Gen Z say Britain’s wealth gap is “about right” – twice as high as Millennials (15%), who are next most likely to hold this view.
  • One in five (21%) Gen Z say they are relaxed about the top 1% globally becoming richer in absolute terms – the highest of all generations, and four times higher than the proportion of Baby Boomers (5%) who feel this way.

Former Cabinet minister, Rt Hon. Liam Byrne MP, who co-chairs the APPG on Inclusive Growth, said:

“Our economy is now working far better for the wealthy than it is for everyone else - and that's now threatening the heart of our democracy.

“Over the last five years, there’s been a profound shift in people’s perceptions of the anatomy of power in Britain and who voters now think call the shots.

“It’s clear that more people now think that the super rich hold the most power in the land - more power than the politicians we elect to run the country. And almost no one sees ‘ordinary people’ as the most influential.

“When both wealth and power are seen as flowing to those at the very top, we have to conclude that things have to change. We cannot go on like this. So, as political parties start to write their manifestos for the next election, there has to be ambitious thinking about how we rebuild a wealth-owning democracy. Because right now, people fear democracy is in deep trouble.”

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“The increasing proportion of the UK public that see the wealthiest 1% as more powerful than governments is a remarkable shift in a short period of time. We don’t often see those sorts of turnarounds in opinion, and it reflects a significant shift in how many see influence working in the UK.

“But there were signals of concern back in 2018, when the UK public thought that the wealthiest were going to be the most powerful group by 2030 – it seems we’re just ahead of schedule on a worrying trend the public had picked up on back then.”

Will Snell, chief executive of the Fairness Foundation, said:

“We know that people have different views about whether hard work or factors outside people’s control are more important in influencing life chances. However, this fascinating research shows that the latter view is becoming increasingly popular, especially when people think about the chances of becoming wealthy.

“It also shows how a majority of people with both views, representing a very broad swathe of political opinion in this country, are concerned about wealth inequality. And it chimes with polling data that the Fairness Foundation published last week, showing that seven in ten Britons (including 61 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters) are concerned about a society in which some have wealth of over £10 million while others live in poverty.”

The APPG on Inclusive Growth will set out a series of reports before bringing together the UK inequality policy community for a major conference at the House of Commons on Thursday 6 July 2023, followed by events at the party conferences in October.

Read the full report, Attitudes to wealth inequality in Britain today.

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