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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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue