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Why the rich want more tax, Tory tape and the story of that leader

My reactions to 9/11 were, from the start, different from everyone else's. As we watched on the office television, somebody said with horror, "I can't believe this is happening in Manhattan!" To which, I thought, why not? Many countries had, at some point in the previous 90 years, experienced the effects of aerial bombardment, sometimes from American forces. Why should we regard Americans as uniquely immune from such barbarity? The US, after all, had become the world's sole great power and it revelled in this status.

As Der Spiegel observed in 1997, "America is now the Schwarzenegger of international politics: showing off muscles, intrusive, intimidating." Particularly under George W Bush, the US showed almost complete indifference to global warming, world poverty and injustices such as the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Millions of children died in developing countries for lack of clean water supplies while millions of Americans could hardly walk for the quantities of junk food they'd ingested.

In the weeks following, the words of Mark Twain echoed in my head. The French revolutionary terror, he observed, inflicted "the horror of swift death" upon "a thousand persons" and "we have all been . . . diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over" it. But there was another terror that had brought "lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak" on "a hundred million" and we had never learned to see it "in its vastness or pity".

Almost anybody should be thankful that the US, not the Soviet Union, won the cold war. But a dominant or imperial power, however benign or enlightened, will be resented. The violent 9/11 attacks were not right - they were a criminal atrocity - but they were hardly surprising.

Public enemy No 1

Some of these thoughts, expressed more clumsily than I later wished, found their way into the New Statesman leader that, as editor, I wrote barely 24 hours after the attacks. With hindsight, I strained too hard to avoid repeating (to borrow Twain's words) the shivering and mourning that dominated all other news media. The NS, I determined, would boldly go where others dared not tread. As critics saw it, my view was that the Americans had it coming to them and it was all the fault of the victims. Which wasn't quite what I meant, but I could see their point.

The proprietor expressed displeasure. Advertisers withdrew. Subscribers cancelled. The London Evening Standard asked me to write about what it was like to be public enemy number one. Asked when vengeance was morally defensible, the right-wing American columnist P J O'Rourke replied, "When it is meted out to the editors of the New Statesman" (in defence of colleagues, the plural was undeserved). The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland said I should be "standing in the shoes of the bereaved". Private Eye lampooned me as a real-life Dave Spart. Irwin Stelzer, a Rupert Murdoch aide and confidant of Gordon Brown, told me he would strain every sinew to have me sacked.

However, I received warm support from John Pilger and Tariq Ali. My leader (so I was later told) was read, discussed and admired the length and breadth of Africa. And sales soared to record levels, remaining high for many months as NS editorials opposed the invasion of Afghanistan. Like Tony Blair, I shall let history judge me, if it can be bothered.

Champagne Amanda

And, like everyone else, I can remember where I was when news of the attacks came: at lunch in a nearby restaurant with Amanda Platell, who had recently resigned as press chief to William Hague, the outgoing Tory leader. She was trying to persuade me, a notorious skinflint, that I should pay more for a proposed column on the grounds that her champagne bill was unusually high. In my haste to return to the office, I rashly offered her another £10. No doubt she was suitably grateful to Osama Bin Laden.

Buffett cossetted

Why do rich folk on both sides of the Atlantic, including the financier Warren Buffett and France's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, want to pay higher taxes? Have they repented of their unimaginable wealth?

Not quite. Sovereign debt crises threaten the stability of the established financial structure. They could bring down banks and ruin inves­tors. For once, billionaires (of whom, I grant you, a few may sincerely want more equitable societies) have an interest in ensuring that governments are adequately financed. But there is a price for their self-sacrifice. Consider, for example, Maurice Lévy, chief executive of the France-based Publicis Groupe, the world's third-largest advertising conglomerate. In the Financial Times, he writes, "it is time to increase my share of taxes", but only if France reforms "handouts and welfare support", privatises more services and scraps the 35-hour working week. The point of him paying more tax is to sucker the masses into tolerating much harsher hits on their living standards than on his, and to shrink the state so that it becomes even less of a threat to the rich.

Mad Nad's baby

Tories aren't really against state regulation. They just want regulation they approve of: blue tape rather than red tape, you could say. Under pressure from the Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries, health services must offer women considering abortions "independent counselling", which means advice from somebody likely to have moral or religious objections. So, another box must be ticked before a medical procedure is carried out. One wonders where this will end. Will patients intending to give up smoking be offered "independent counselling" with a tobacco industry representative?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

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 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11