Where are Britain's selfless billionaires?

Rich people in other countries demand they be required to pay higher taxes more often than you might think. So why doesn't Britain have a Warren Buffett or a Bill Gates, willing to pay a little bit more tax for everybody's benefit?

Let’s get one thing straight: no one likes paying tax. Most of us, though, are willing to put up with it as the price we pay for living in a civilised country. Because a world in which we give up a chunk of our income to pay for an imperfect government is better than one in which we get to keep our money, but can’t leave the house to spend it because all the roads are potholed and anyway our neighbours have plague.

Since we’re going to have to pay tax whether we like it or not, then it makes some kind of sense for those who can most easily afford it to make the biggest contribution. That’s certainly what the public think: support for Ed Balls’ plan to hike the taxes on the top one per cent is, despite what the newspapers might tell you, consistently running at around 60 per cent.

Oddly enough, though, there’s been remarkably little support for the plan from those who are actually going to have to pay the higher tax. The City, the business lobby and the right-wing press have all come out with responses so doom-laden that you’d think Balls had promised to nationalise Surrey.

This may seem a bit on the dog-bites-man side, but, actually, rich people demand they be required to pay higher taxes more often than you might think. In 2009, nearly 50 German billionaires signed a petition calling for the government to raise their own taxes, so they could help their country through the fiscal crisis. Two years later 16 of France’s wealthiest people did the same.

This isn’t just some kind of weird, continental hangover from socialism, either. Across the Atlantic, in the home of the free itself, Warren Buffett has been demanding his own government stop coddling him for some time; so, as it happens, has Bill Gates.

All these people, though, have one glaring characteristic in common: none of them are British. Here in blighty, it’s hard to find anyone who’ll come out vocally in favour of a policy that’s going to cost them personally.  There’s J K Rowling, of course, but she’s unusual in that she’s been dependent on the welfare budget and thus feels a sense of personal responsibility that many others lack.

And while there are other rich folk who’ve made a point of not bitching about taxes – James Dyson, Duncan Bannatyne, the Phones4U founder John Caudwell – the debate is generally couched in terms of “being happy to pay” rather than “being happy to pay more”. They don’t call for higher taxes, merely stress that people shouldn’t avoid the existing ones. And even then, Dyson’s business empire spent four years domiciled in Malta, before coming back onshore late last year.

All of which raises a question – where are our selfless billionaires? Those tricksy foreigners who’ve spoken in favour of higher taxes are no doubt unusual, but their lack of a parallel here in Britain is striking all the same.

One possibility is that our rich are, in global terms, genuinely hard done by (don’t laugh, it could happen). A top tax rate of 45 per cent, after all, isn’t notably low in global terms.  Or, just maybe, Balls’ plan really is a bad one. Maybe, if the government were to take one more pound in every £20 that high earners make over £150k, it really would succeed only in slashing growth and killing innovation.

We can’t entirely discount this possibility – so those among the hyper-wealthy who desperately do want to do more for the nation, and merely think that this is a bad way of doing it, are welcome to set out their alternative plans. An open letter to the Daily Telegraph should do the job nicely.

Or maybe something else is going on. Maybe most super-wealthy Britons genuinely believe the state shouldn’t get a single penny more out of them. After all, continental billionaires grew up with the European social model; American ones have a long history of philanthropy. Ours, though, are used to a political narrative in which government spending is always inefficient, the poor are always feckless, those on benefits always scroungers. The world repeatedly tells them that most tax is wasted. Given that, why would any sane person want to waste more?

No one likes paying tax. But as long as we never talk about the reasons why we do it, we’ll like it even less.

Warren Buffett has called for higher taxes for the US's super rich. Photo: Getty

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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