Editor’s blog: £10k handbags at 20 paces

Toynbee has plenty to say about the rich. Very little of it positive. In a recent Guardian column she likened their behaviour in the UK in 2007 to the last days of Rome with a dash of 'Babylonian excess' thrown in. She has joined Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman to express outrage that some women are paying 10,000 for a handbag. On the morning of our encounter her newspaper, while leading its front page with the bad news that City bonuses had hit a record high with a 14bn payout, noted with distaste that there has been a 29% rise in sales of Bentleys in the last year.

She is unimpressed by the process of trickle down economics. Toynbee doesn't have much time for those who argue that the wealthy not only create jobs and – sometimes – pay substantial amounts of tax into the exchequer but also spend large amounts that help the world keep spinning.

So, what on earth does she advocate as a solution here? Does she believe that the Prime Minister needs to sit down at Number 10 with some trade union leaders over the legendary 'beer and sandwiches' as they did back in the '70s, to establish an incomes policy for those in the City plus a ceiling on what City spouses may spend on a handbag?

I pointed out that while we inhabit a country in which we enjoy individual liberty it's up to each rich person to chose their handbag or their Bentley, in the same way as it's the right of those who live in straitened means in social housing to have a Sky dish if they wish. It isn't the business of the state to tell us what to do with our cash and those of us that pay tax part with a pretty substantial chunk of our income already.

The practical measures that Toynbee advocates to get us a firmer moral footing include the following: she wants a 50% income tax rate beginning at 100,000 and another even higher rate for 'the supersonic.' (British GPs who now earn an average of 106,000 might have something to say about that.) She wants tax returns made public, as is the case in the US, so naming and shaming of dodgers becomes easier. And she wants an end to buy-to-let 'tax breaks' which will not impress the large swathe of middle England which has been buying property as a nest egg for old age.

Some of the listeners pointed out that this all smacked of the politics of envy. Boris Johnson, if he'd been listening may have repeated his verdict that Polly 'incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair's Britain… She is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and 'elf'n'safety fascism.' (Ms Toynbee, for her part, terms Boris a 'Jester, toff, self-absorbed sociopath and serial liar.')

This argument and Toynbee and Johnson's mutual detestation shows, among other things, that in the UK many of those who watch from the pavement as a Ferrari rasps by still want to scratch it because the driver must be a bastard rather a source of admiration. The atmosphere has changed in this country when it comes to the acceptability of wealth since the '70s. But when the gap appears as broad as it is at the moment things might get seriously ugly. Someone needs to come up with a cogent argument why it's fair and reasonable that a cleaner in Barclays Canary Wharf gets 7 an hour and Bob Diamond gets 25m a year.

I believe there's a real risk that the wealthy are currently in danger of losing the moral argument completely if they continue to refuse to come out of the trenches and fight for themselves. Rather than rely on poor saps like me to do the dirty work.