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

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide