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22 May 2014

Cameron’s snap judgements, Britain’s billionaires and the peril of low-energy light bulbs

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts column.

By Peter Wilby

David Cameron says that, because the Take That singer Gary Barlow raises money for Children in Need and does “a huge amount” for the country, it is not necessary to strip him of his OBE for tax avoidance. Yet in 2012 Cameron denounced Jimmy Carr, who used a similar avoidance scheme, for “particularly egregious” moral failings. Why is Barlow judged less harshly? To my mind, persuading pensioners and minimum wage earners to cough up for charity makes dodging your taxes more reprehensible.

Cameron’s job is to run the country (ensuring, among other things, that tax loopholes are closed), not to deliver snap moral judgements on TV. As Ed Miliband argued with prime ministerial dignity, when questioned about Barlow on BBC Radio 5 Live, the biggest responsibility lies with government rather than individuals.


Rich pickings

As the Sunday Times publishes its annual Rich List, the columnist Dominic Lawson celebrates the 102 billionaires in the UK. If “a man makes a billion pounds through ownership of a business that did not exist before he created it”, Lawson argues, “he” (it’s true not many are women) must have done so “by supplying the public with something they wanted”.

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How many of the 102 meet this criterion? James Dyson (£3bn), inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, certainly; Peter Hargreaves (£2.4bn), co-founder of the fund super­market Hargreaves Lansdown, and Cameron Mackintosh (£1bn), who staged Miss Saigon, The Phantom of the Opera, and so on, perhaps. You could make a case of sorts for Richard Desmond (£1.2bn), who published Asian Babes. But, to take just a few examples, the Duke of Westminster (£8.5bn) inherited a property empire; Nicky Oppen­heimer (£4.6bn) diamond mines; Viscount Rothermere (£1bn) newspapers; Lord Grantchester (£1.2bn) football Pools; John Dorrance (£1.7bn) a tinned soup business; Bruno Schroder (£2.9bn) a bank. Some fortunes, particularly Russian ones, came from control of natural resources or former government assets; others from running hedge funds. Several billionaires, including Richard Branson (£3.6bn), initially created businesses but then linked their brands to established enterprises. Most of the names on the Sunday Times list fall into one of these non-creative categories.

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Journey to the centre

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey took me and my wife to the National Theatre on the South Bank in London. But why do I usually avoid the South Bank, hoping its excellent drama productions will later transfer elsewhere? It is not just the grey and angular concrete. I also have an aversion to arts centres, retail centres, sports centres, learning centres and functional “centres” of any kind. Why should our lives be segmented in this fashion? Most people of my age will remember football grounds, cinemas, theatres, swimming pools or shops in perfectly ordinary streets, next to homes, offices, pubs, and so on, with affection. A BBC Radio Derby presenter recently spoke at length about his fond memories of my late father-in-law’s tiny jokes and games shop near the city centre. I doubt anyone will ever feel similarly about an arts or retail centre.


Follow school rules

Michael Gove is criticised for being such a “zealot” that, to get his free schools off the ground, he has raided a “basic needs” fund that should guarantee school places for all children. Some parents, it is said, can’t get their five-year-olds educated because Gove has blown the money on his pet idea. The Education Secretary, eyeing his place in the history books (or in No 10?), presses on with bold experiments but he repeatedly fails – as politicians often do – to consider the wider effects of his policies.

For example, both free schools and academies are allowed to control their pupil admissions. A local teachers’ union secretary tells me that this has a little-known effect. In most local authorities, a school that throws a child out for misbehaviour must accept a child excluded from another school as a replacement. Academies are under no such obligation. Schools that remain with the local authority therefore become dumping grounds for difficult cases.

We can argue endlessly about the merits of academies and free schools but Gove should ensure that they follow the same rules as other schools.


On the bright side

Oh dear, something else to worry about. “Eminent professors”, the Daily Mail reports, say low-energy light bulbs may cause blindness, premature ageing and skin cancer. But, I need to know, do these risks outweigh those created by the need to stand on chairs and change old-style bulbs more often?