The 1% should recognise a big fortune is usually built on good fortune

Stop weeping about the £600,000 you take home every year shrinking by a few thousand. It is offensive to the people who survive on a hundredth of that, says Alex Andreou.

“The rich already pay their fair share,” said millionaire David Cameron in response to millionaire Andrew Marr.

This is a sentiment echoed by a number of Conservatives in the last few days. In support, they present figures which show that the top 1 per cent contributes a higher percentage to the total tax take than others. But what struck me was how all commentators persisted in only using percentages.

What about actual figures? Let’s talk numbers.

I will be extremely generous. I will make the assumption that we live in a world where a talented, expensive accountant cannot create a dozen shell companies in exotic places to hide income. I will make the assumption that this top 1 per cent declares every penny it makes and pays full tax on it.

I will accept every assumption made by John Redwood MP – the self-appointed chartered accountant of this Borg collective. I will use 2009-2010 confirmed HMRC figures to avoid charges of manipulation or error.

The total number of taxpayers in the UK is just shy of 30 million. The top 1 per cent is, therefore, 300,000 people. Total income declared across the UK was £870bn. Of that, £121bn was made by the top 1 per cent. The total income tax received was £145bn, of which £40.5bn was contributed by this top-earning 300,000 people. This yields an effective average personal tax rate of 33.5 per cent.

This leaves the top 1 per cent with an average annual personal income, after tax, of £268,000. Over a quarter of a million, on average, each year. It might be “chicken feed” to Boris Johnson, but it is a lot of money to most of us.

Let’s look at a smaller slice, still – the six thousand people in the UK who have a personal income of a million or more. After all personal tax deductions, they are left with over £600,000 a year. It would take a UK person on the median income over 30 years to make what the lowliest of these six thousand people make in a year. A whole working life. 

The additional insidious suggestion by David Cameron, the cause of much mirth at Tory Conference, was that by choosing to tax this top slice less he was not gifting them a tax-break, because “when people earn money, it’s their money”.

The implication being that this money was not made using the work of low-paid people forced to claim benefits to supplement their income; not made using the roads, airports and ports we all pay for; not made by all of us buying their goods and service; not made under the protection of the same police, fire and health services we all paid for.

No. This money magically came into existence out of the very same anatomical orifice of these “doers” and “risk-takers” out of which the sun, evidently, shines. A result of their entrepreneurship and get-up-and-go; nothing else.

Theo Paphitis is an interesting case study – held up perpetually as an example of that archetype. A few months ago, he was asked on Question Time what motivates him. He said it was the will to create things, to grow his companies, to employ people, to make his mark. Ten minutes later the panel was discussing the top rate of tax. He said that if personal tax was increased on those making more than a million, he would up and leave the UK.

So, which is it? Pick one, Theo. You cannot claim the mantle of wealth-trickling sainthood, while clinging on to every obscene penny with bony, Scrooge-like fingers, under threat of imminent departure for Barbados. You cannot claim that your wealth is the result of your hard work alone, while consistently calling it “my kids’ inheritance” on Dragon’s Den. What will they have done to deserve their share of your £170m estimated worth, when you’re no longer around?

None of us, including Cameron or Paphitis, would look at a couple in which one partner said “you’re at home raising the kids – no more hand-outs, you leech” with anything other than disgust. None of us would look at a wealthy family which refused to pay for its kids’ education or kicked out granddad when he became ill and think “bravo – tough love”. All of us admired how a community came together, took time off work, with no thought for their own self-interest, to look for a missing six-year-old.

At what point, precisely, do these qualities of selflessness, compassion and solidarity cease to be attractive? At what point do the rules change and we go from individual, couple, family or community to UK plc? Tax is simply the state’s expression of these qualities. A recognition that a big fortune is built, at least in part on good fortune, be it of birth, education, health or position.

The idea that everyone’s tax pays for a tiny percentage of benefit scroungers, is not only manifestly absurd, but damaging to the nation and destructive to one’s own morale. Isn’t it better to assume that your tax bought a wheelchair, educated a talented but disadvantaged kid, saved a diabetic, paid for a great teacher – which it does the vast majority of the time?

So, stop moaning about percentages. Stop weeping about the £600,000 you take home every year shrinking by a few thousand. It is offensive to the people who survive on a hundredth of that. Count your blessings and help those who have not had such good fortune; not to the tune of whatever percentage you consider fair, but as much as you can. Do the right thing. It is the only meaningful way to “make your mark”.

An Occupy protester in an Anonymous mask. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle