Let’s face it, being British and loaded is not easy. Privileged, greedy and not to be trusted, it’s tough to be rich in this country.
Well, that’s one way of looking at it, and it’s a version of society that continues to permeate British culture.
It’s reflected in the political system, particularly at election times when attacks on the wealthy are justified on grounds of building a more equitable Britain.
The rich, at best, are tolerated by the wider public and the political establishment, except when they are needed for one important thing: raising taxes. And with a General Election looming, the rich are back in the sights of the politicians.
An “us and them” division has been in-built into British society since the aristocracy held the upper hand and there remains a long-held resentment of the “monied” classes. As such, we continue to demand they pay their “fair share”.
But is this good politics? And what does being “rich” really mean in today’s society?
At least there has been a shift in attitudes towards one group: the self-made entrepreneurs. Lady Thatcher’s enterprise revolution in the 1980s helped rekindle our fondness for making money that was last evident in Victorian times.
Once disparagingly included among the “filthy rich”, and unfortunately associated with the Arthur Daley school of business, entrepreneurs now command respect for their contribution to rebuilding the economy and, in many cases, for their ingenuity.
Celebrating “unicorns”, companies valued at a billion dollars – and the individuals who built them – is cool and a cause for celebration.
However, success has a habit of turning into excess. The emergence of ‘loadsamoney’ City boys, fat cat bankers, and business leaders riding the bonus bandwagon did the cause of wealth creation no favours.
More recently, images of Sir Philip Green sunning himself on his superyacht in the Med while the pensions regulator was trying to sort out the mess left behind in the collapse of Bhs hardly endeared Brits to its clutch of billionaires.
Yet criticising those who make a bob or two runs counter to the desire in all of us to make a better life for ourselves. The 45 million Britons who regularly play the National Lottery are not doing it primarily to help support the worthy projects that get funded. They simply want to win big, enjoy the Champagne lifestyle, and join one of them – the stinking rich.
We all aspire to greater things, whether through the lottery or by improving our chances of promotion. But there is a resentment among we Brits towards anyone seen to be “getting above themselves”. When the Ford Mondeo is replaced on the drive by a top of the range Merc then the whispering really starts. It must be an inheritance, the aforesaid lottery win, or – the ultimate suspicion – the owner must be up to no good.
Few will offer a smile, a handshake and a message of congratulations. You may have made it through your own hard work and endeavour, but everyone else smells a rat.
So what does it take to be considered “rich”? Is it millions? And how many millions?
According to a 2013 report by investment bank UBS, only 28% of US citizens with $1 million to $5 million in assets considered themselves wealthy, let alone rich. Even among those with more than $5 million in assets only 3 in 5 considered themselves wealthy.
Anyone wanting to qualify for The Sunday Times Rich List needs to have at least £113 million.
For British politicians “rich” starts with having a considerably more modest income. In a recent interview Labour’s UK finance spokesman John McDonnell made it clear that Labour would be “looking to the corporations and to the rich to pay their share” and he set a threshold for “rich” as a salary of between £70,000 and £80,000 a year.
‘They should be taxing all of us, not simply clobbering those in higher brackets’
Targeting those in higher income brackets is a key battleground, and there is talk once again of raising the 45p top rate of tax to 50p, making higher earners pay their “fair share” towards funding the services we all use.
It is a faulty argument.
Increasing income tax by 5p from the 1% of all Scottish taxpayers who earn more than £150,000 would contribute about £200m in additional tax revenue, according to accountants RSM.
Adding 1p on the basic rate so that everyone pays would raise £500m.
So, plain maths tells us that if the politicians really want to raise more money for education and health services they should be taxing all of us, not simply clobbering those in the top tax bracket.
But that is not good politics. It alienates the majority, and the majority – as stated at the beginning of this piece – hate the rich.
In reality relatively few people earn more than £70,000 a year – approximately 5% of UK taxpayers earned at least this amount, according to the HMRC.
Also, this group embraces many of those who consider themselves to be “aspirational” rather than rich: middle managers, senior police officers, head teachers, lawyers and self-employed tradesmen.
They would resent anyone wanting to “punish” them for their efforts in climbing the greasy pole. Greedy? On the make? Not a bit of it. Rich? Not really. Well off? Maybe.
Let’s just leave them to enjoy what they’ve earned through honest endeavour.