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 edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.