I have before me a Norwegian newspaper website. It shows the country’s top 20 people for annual income, alongside the top 20 lists for wealth and for how much tax they paid. The wealthiest is Kjell Inge Røkke, born in 1958, who has the equivalent of £866m stashed away. Because he had zero income, he paid just £8.7m in tax, due under Norway’s 1.1 per cent wealth tax.
Norwegians can get similar details about anybody – neighbours, bosses, dentists – by logging on to an official website. But that is all they get. Their tax transparency leaves you wanting to know more. Why did Røkke (who, after making his fortune from fishing trawlers, bought Wimbledon FC and moved it to Milton Keynes) declare zero income? Why did Forbes show his wealth as $3bn in 2013? Is he running down his capital? Is this wise for a man of 57? Why is the retail and real-estate magnate Odd Reitan, currently listed as the richest Norwegian by Forbes, only the 11th on the Norwegian website?
Similar questions arise over Boris Johnson’s tax details, published in the new mood of British transparency prompted by David Cameron. We learn nothing about Johnson’s wealth, because in the UK wealth is not taxable. But we learn, as we would not in Norway, the sources of his income in 2014-15: £143,911 from the London mayoralty, £266,667 from his Daily Telegraph column, £224,617 from book royalties. And £694 from bank interest, nothing from dividends. Really? I know that interest rates are low and savings can be sheltered from tax in Isas but considering his pension contributions for the year were only £16,406, I worry whether Boris is being prudent. Is he blowing his earnings on fast women? Does his wife, a practising barrister, spend it? Do his children get too much pocket money?
That is the trouble with transparency. It feeds the appetite of those whom my late mother called “nosy parkers”.
Nevertheless, on balance, I favour tax transparency for a reason that was inadvertently illustrated by a letter to the Guardian. Complaining about a new tax rule affecting the self-employed, including supply teachers earning between £12,000 and £14,000 a year, the correspondent remained anonymous “because I am embarrassed by my low income”.
The British used to be reticent not about the lack of money but about high income or wealth. But now I am told by professional fundraisers that US colleges write to alumni saying something like: “We believe your income is $1m a year. We like alumni to donate 5 per cent a year. We therefore look forward to your cheque for $50,000.” To which an American is likely to reply: “Whaddaya mean $1m? I make $2m. Here’s my cheque for $100,000.”
Now in Britain, as in the US, high incomes denote success, power and status. If they were published, nobody would want to hide a penny, even from the taxman.
Death and taxes
David Cameron is remarkably adept at getting out of trouble. Following speculation about how he benefited from his late father’s offshore funds, which were exposed in the Panama Papers, he revealed a non-taxable gift of £200,000 from his mother. Cameron must have expected accusations that the gift was made to avoid inheritance tax. But he must also have known that he and his mother would have many defenders. The Daily Mail, for instance, told him to stop “grovelling before the politics-of-envy mob” and start “shouting from the rooftops” that, to most people, it is inheritance tax “that’s immoral”.
The Mail, I fear, is right. The left has badly lost the argument on inheritance tax. Barely 3 per cent of estates pay it but the common view is that what parents give their children, whether in life or death, is a family matter in which the state has no right to intervene.
The left should propose paying the proceeds of the tax into a fund to meet all the costs of elderly care. Those who dodge it could then be branded as hard-hearted skinflints who would leave Grandma to live out her final years in helpless squalor.
In the name of the father
You may have thought it a blessing that, although he went to Eton and had a posh mother – the granddaughter of a former master of Pembroke College, Cambridge – the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at least had a lowlife father. Alas, Gavin Welby, usually described as a “son of a Jewish immigrant” and “whiskey salesman” who died in 1977 of booze and fags, must now be written out of the script. Just before marrying Welby, his mother had the good taste to hop into bed and conceive her child with a well-bred true Englishman called Anthony Montague Browne, an army colonel’s son who was educated at Stowe and Magdalen College, Oxford. So we have an even posher archbishop than we thought.
Another Old Etonian, Charles Moore, a former Spectator editor, unearthed this tale after gossiping with “neighbours on the Kent-Sussex border”. He then informed Welby, who obligingly went for a DNA test. Frankly, I would have told Moore to get knotted and mind his own business.
Love and Harwich
To Harwich, Essex, for a marvellous exhibition of prints by Dan Murrell, the New Statesman’s graphics genius, and his collaborator Hugh Tisdale. Equally marvellous was the town. “Harwich for the Continent”, the railway posters used to say, but it is more than a gateway to somewhere else. It is packed with little alleys, snug pubs, charming 18th-century buildings and colonies of artists. It also has one of the few surviving pre-First World War “Electric Palace” cinemas, still showing films and still with its ornamental frontage and original projection room.
It might take you some time to get there (a good 90 minutes from the other end of Essex) but it’s worth the journey. Whether the gossip is as good as on the Kent-Sussex border is another matter.
This article appears in the 13 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster