The sight of the boy-billionaire the Duke of Westminster giving over a measly £12.5 million of his estimated £9.5 billion in inherited wealth to the NHS sums up the way the gross inequities of present-day Britain are displayed as generosity.
It’s the same sort of ludicrous mentality which leads Health Secretary Matt Hancock to unveil a badge for care workers, rather than a 20 per cent pay rise and proper PPE. Britain was a country that in 1974 raised the top rate of tax on earned income to 83 per cent. Now, Ministers hector 20-year-old millionaire footballers for not being charitable enough. The rise of the charity society is a sign of the shameful decline in collectivism, of ‘each according to their ability to each according to their need’ being a matter not of rights but of gifts.
It was Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who was in charge when the NHS was first built after the war, who described charity as “a cold grey loveless thing”.
“If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim,” Attlee said.
Let’s be clear, solidarity between communities is a great thing, but we have undergone a great regression in our thinking when the NHS officially responds to the Duke’s “gift” – 0.1 per cent of his inherited wealth – by saying we are “incredibly grateful for this most generous donation”. Would the £3.5 billion the Duke managed to avoid paying in inheritance tax due to utilising a “loophole” not be more useful to the NHS? The tax dodging super-rich steal a three-course meal from the table with one-hand, and then are lavishly praised when they hand back a cold roast potato with the other. In a paper for Tax Research UK last year, professor Richard Murphy found that there is an £18.5 billion annual tax loss to UK coffers “arising from the tax haven activities of those who are subject to UK tax upon their income”.
And all of this goes on while we live in an era of corporate bailouts. The supermarkets got away without paying business rates this year due to the Covid-19 crisis, which for Tesco was over £500 million saved in unpaid tax. Meanwhile, they raked in huge profits from the rush to buy food as sales jumped 30 per cent, and handed out a big fat dividend to shareholders of £656 million. I’m sure its largest shareholder, global asset firm and master tax-avoider BlackRock, will be happy. And then we have the absurd sight of Richard Branson pleading for a UK Government bailout for his airline, at the same time as he moves VirginGalactic, valued at $1.1 billion, to a British-administered tax haven, the British Virgin Islands.
Is it any wonder that Britain’s economy and public services are so fragile to this pandemic? We have an economic system where the super-rich have few responsibilities to their employees or to public services, but the state has many responsibilities to protect the profitability of the super-rich. Remember that for every donation to the NHS, the PFI and outsourcing firms have taken many multiples of that cash out of the healthcare system for profits. The real sickness in Britain is not the virus – it’s that the mentality of the UK ruling class can easily be identified in a Charles Dickens novel.
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