We ought to tame, shame and civilise the super-rich

But our rage blows hot and cold

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The Independent Online

In July 2009, I took a book for review on my summer holiday. On a breezy terrace at our Greek host’s house on the island of Aegina, I scoffed pistachios and peaches while basking in the compassionate wisdom of a renowned British banker. His giant firm had (as I later wrote) come out of the great meltdown of the previous year smelling “far more of roses than its ordure-drenched rivals”.

Soothed, maybe drugged, by sunshine, rest and the lazy procession of ferries chugging past on their way to and from Piraeus, I admired this chap’s honest appraisal of his trade at a moment when – as he admitted – “globalised market capitalism is in the dock as it has not been for a generation”. With erudite nods to T S Eliot and Karl Marx, Albert Camus and the Prophet Isaiah, this scholar, financier and (literal) priest confronted the “manifest failure of market fundamentalism”. He hailed modern Britain as “a far less racist, sexist and class-ridden society” than in the past, and mounted a cautiously qualified defence of capitalism as, on balance, a force for good – provided that big business acted in a “more tempered and more sober” style than before.

That was then. By February 2010, Greece had suffered the first of the austerity storms that would shipwreck half the country and leave no family (including our host’s) unscathed. In 2012, HSBC received a record $1.9bn fine to settle charges brought in the US after it emerged that the bank had unwittingly allowed the blood-drenched fortunes of drug cartels to be laundered through HSBC accounts. By that point, Stephen Green – clergyman, banking boss, chief executive and then chairman of HSBC from 2003 to 2010, and author of the highly persuasive tract Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World – had joined the Coalition government as a trade minister in the House of Lords.

This week, we saw that the learned, high-minded and once so eloquent Lord Green has precisely nothing to say about the aggressive tax avoidance procured in bulk by his bank’s Swiss subsidiary on his watch, or the more serious allegations of tax evasion. If the allegations prove to be true, the usual formula should apply. If he knew: a pimp for cheats, who belongs in the courts. If he did not: a useless, derelict incompetent. I’m glad at least that my otherwise amiable review of Green’s book raised the scandal of Household International: a US sub-prime loan outfit acquired by HSBC in 2003 despite its noxious history of predatory lending to the poor.

As an ordained priest of the Anglican communion, Lord Green will recall Matthew 23:27: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” He’ll also know what Jesus says to the bewildered disciples earlier: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” While theologians continue to dispute what that may mean, Green’s Swiss branch whisked thousands of affluent souls out of taxable purgatory.

His efforts not merely to sanitise but sacralise the profit motive now lie in shreds. Even if Green was guilty of nothing more than a gross failure of oversight at HSBC Suisse, no one will heed his sermons again. So should we crow, and consign Good Value to the flames as we curse the furtive super-class with its offshore stashes of dosh? On the contrary. Much of Green’s argument holds good. In the face of a “groundswell of rage” that has grown since 2009, global business and those who gain most from it must indeed show humility, adapt and reform. As D H Lawrence said: trust the tale, not the teller. Theologically speaking, the frailty of the preacher never discredits the gospel.

Compromised bankers aside, those “whited sepulchres” of hypocrisy litter the landscape of politics today. We bash the tax-avoiding rich but idolise extreme wealth. Premier League clubs sell television rights to Sky and BT for £5.1bn, pay poverty wages to cleaners at their sponsored stadiums, but incur no more than a faint wrist-slap of rebuke. So long as our plutocrats manage to dodge an Eton education, then public opinion blesses the most grotesque forms of profiteering – and signs on the dotted line for a premium package of more. As for the claim that sheer talent warrants the ever-growing chasm between the “best” and the rest, the record of star footballers no more supports it than does that of hedge-fund managers. As many troughs as peaks mark the career graph of Wayne Rooney, while even Lionel Messi has begun to falter at Barcelona. Over on the big screen, Tom Cruise – a star guest at the Bafta awards last weekend – earned about $75m in 2012, a pay packet equalled in the subsequent two years by Robert Downey Jnr. To put it kindly, neither actor has invariably put in performances that stand at the pinnacle of cinematic art. Who really cares?

Easily aroused, easily assuaged, our rage at the rich blows hot and cold. It takes the form of childish tantrums rather than an adult drive for change. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have all, in office, flattered the financiers. Cosmetic spats apart, all will do so again. In the Green Party, the UK does have politicians that envisage a serious reduction in yawning inequalities. The Scottish National Party, for all its history as a cosy pal of Edinburgh’s own moneyed elite, now trumpets a radical redistributive agenda. Between them, these parties may take 12 or 13 per cent of the total UK vote in May. Almost 90 per cent will still opt for a party that, in policy if not in rhetoric, remains – in Lord Mandelson’s deathless phrase – “intensely relaxed” about the accumulation of enormous wealth.

Few of us seriously itch to hit the rich where it hurts. So might we mould them instead into decent, responsible citizens? Tax compliance, with an HMRC that picked on sharks rather than sticklebacks, would be a start. Plutocrats need to justify their privilege in other ways as well. At present, we endure the antics of a super-class that has no class at all. Private islands, glitzy parties, branded bling, ballooning basements: the top 1 per cent in assets sit in the bottom decile of taste. Look at this week’s Black and White Ball to raise Tory funds, with its nightmare swarm of gambling tycoons, porn barons, City slickers and property speculators. It was the garish, neon-lit inferno of “Pottersville” (from Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life) relocated to Park Lane.

Their friends will never say a word against this dumb and sleazy ostentation. Their enemies would – in theory if not practice – tax the lot into extinction. Given the absence of a strong egalitarian tide, what if we tried education instead of appropriation? Compared with the US, the culture of intelligent large-scale philanthropy still falters in Britain. Public-sector purists will object that we should never need it. Fair enough. But, for now, our Syriza moment remains far beyond the visible horizon. Most voters do not yet seek a punitive and confiscatory approach to legally gathered wealth. (Illegally is quite another matter…) In that case, we ought to tame, shame and civilise the super-rich.

British philanthropy has never kept up with the engorging accounts of the 1 per cent. According to research into “million-pound donors” by Coutts Bank, in 2013 there was only “a very modest increase in the total value” of large charitable gifts. In all, 292 donors gave sums in excess of £1m: a total of £1.36bn, almost unchanged on 2012, although the number of benefactors did rise. And where do the super-rich spread their largesse?

About 41 per cent (£552m) went to higher education, with £91m spent on the arts, £80m on health – and a paltry £17m on environmental causes. Revealingly, the biggest single gift (£75m) came from an overseas source: Canadian classified-advertising billionaire John McCall MacBain. It went towards the Rhodes scholarships at Oxford University. Britain still has no equivalent to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds vital health and development projects in the neediest regions of the world. It commands assets of $42bn (£28bn), about $28bn given by the founder of Microsoft himself.

One camp insists: hike taxes and make the state pay for all. The other replies: let the rich splash the cash as they choose. Between them, both let our barbarian plutocrats off the hook. If we have to tolerate their overweening vanity, we should twist their Armani-draped arms so that they give more, give wider and give smarter.

Now a defrocked moneybags, Stephen Green will hear no more songs of praise. But his message should survive the messenger. It was the poet Alexander Pope who wrote, in a much-mimicked maxim, that “we may see the small value God has for riches, by the people he gives them to”. Does the Rev Green agree? Challenged in ethics and taste alike, the super-class needs our help to save it from its own crass vulgarity. Otherwise, the future will be Peter Stringfellow and Karren Brady dancing at the Black and White Ball – for ever.

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