Deborah Orr: It's already been proved that soaking the rich doesn't work. But what will?

Being a wealthy and dynamic nation has social consequences, and not all of them are good
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The Independent Online

One of the most interesting aspects of the debate that has suddenly exploded around the various tax loopholes that Britain has for some while offered to the wealthy is that it is largely being conducted on purely economic terms. Defenders of the status quo hark back to the days when the rich were punitively taxed to the unarguable detriment of the economy, and warn of the folly of a return to the politics of envy.

Typically, investors talk heroically of the huge, dick-swinging risks they take, the undoubted contribution they bring, and the need for their derring-do to be rewarded as much as possible. Refreshingly, some of them candidly admit that they are being cosseted a little more than buccaneers as tough as they are really need to be.

Even detractors tend to believe that the ace in their hole is the distortion of property prices that has been partly brought about by the vast sums sloshing about in the City, and the conservative middle classes sometimes go as far as to suggest mournfully that trickle-up has arrived to generate genteel poverty, and make a place for their children at a decent independent school a fading dream. Sir Ronald Colemen may conjure up picaresque visions of rioting in the streets, but mostly that's considered to be nuttily overheated, because the socially excluded are by definition socially excluded, and therefore not part of anyone who's anyone's calculation.

The truth is that nothing much is going to come of all of this. There may be some cautious adjustments to some of the more outrageously anomalous regimes, and that would be a good thing. But you really would have to be driven by nothing at all except the politics of envy to start wading in and breaking up the party with water cannon. The economic argument is inviolable. Soaking the rich does not work.

But the social and moral argument is pretty inviolable as well. Huge differentials in wealth within states and between states do not promote social cohesion. There has been much wringing of hands about social cohesion in Britain, particularly since the 7 July bombings, and much of it focuses on immigration, itself a consequence of our status as an attractively wealthy nation. This in turn has provoked much hyperbole about active citizenship and much chin-stroking discussion about how integration can be promoted. These issues are real and they are painful.

Being a wealthy and dynamic nation has social consequences, and not all of them are good. What some of the extremely wealthy appear to fail to understand is that their activity does have undesirable consequences, on a large scale, as well as desirable ones. The rich should not be punished for their hard-earned privilege, and the wealth they create should be acknowledged. But nor should they fool themselves that the free movement of goods, services and people that they require and desire is nothing to do with them.

The Treasury Select Committee may have queried private equity chiefs over the amount of capital gains tax they pay, and expressed amazement at the seeming lack of grasp of their financial affairs the men in question displayed. But if they have asked them why they believe that personal tax avoidance is socially and morally justified, then it has not been widely reported. I've read only one frank explanation of how the specific justification of such behaviour goes, and this was from an anonymous tax consultant who said that the super-rich tended not to use the services provided by taxation, and didn't agree with the manner in which taxes were spent, so they preferred to use their wealth to do good works of their own choice, or not, as the case may be.

This position is every bit as indefensible as the broad economic argument is solid. One would be hard-pressed to find a soul on the planet who agreed unreservedly with the manner in which their taxes were spent. And even if one is entirely against the provision of state-run public services such as health and education, one does not opt out of living in a society that operates under the rule of law, or indeed out of employing people whose education and health have been delivered through taxation.

If you believe in democracy, and the rule of law, you pay your taxes, and you vote for the party whose manifesto promises fit best with your own ideas about tax. Anything else is simply self-delusion and gross irresponsibility.

Me, Nick, and a mad moment

Much has been said about the current Palestinian scenario. But there was something about Russell Brand's assessment of the situation as "frankly tiresome" that managed to sound oddly well judged. It certainly did the trick anyway. Brand was compère at a karaoke auction put together on Thursday evening to raise funds for a Palestinian children's charity, Hoping Foundation, and seemed as gobsmacked as most other people in the room when the promise of nine performances of nine songs managed in extremely short order to raise £400,000.

Elton John was the biggest fund-raiser, as his rendition of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" attracted a bid of £110,000. He was my personal knight in shining armour, too, because in a wild moment of acquisitive insanity I found myself unhesitatingly offering £50,000 to hear Nick Cave, left, singing "Bootylicious". For a few long seconds, the world stopped, as I contemplated my ruinous folly, and the incalculable familial destruction it would wreak. Then Elton raised me and my suicide bid was over. He pays his taxes too. I love him.

Good advice and bad treatment

I love the idea that giving a cervical cancer vaccination to young girls will encourage promiscuity. I love the idea that the threat of getting cancer, or acquiring any other health problem in the distant future, is a major issue in the sexual calculations of young men or women at any time. Girls risk HIV and a lifetime on a strict drug regimen, chlamydia and infertility, pregnancy and teenage parenthood or abortion, gonorrhoea, syphilis, genital warts, and herpes - and still have sex too young. Mostly, they've never even thought about cervical cancer until now, even though all of these other risks, and more, don't always stop them. Frankly, a five-minute chat from a nurse about all the other difficulties sex can get them into will be just the thing to take their minds off the needle while they are being inoculated.

* It is impossible to be anything other than incredibly sad to hear of the latest horrors to have been uncovered among Australia's indigenous communities. The discovery of widespread alcohol-fuelled child abuse has prompted the government to adopt the draconian measure of banning all alcohol and pornography on Aboriginal lands. God knows how that will work, or what its consequences will be.

Australia is a fantastic country in many ways, but the treatment of Aboriginals there is still shocking to see, even when you visit in expectation of it. Because they had no alcohol in their culture, Aboriginals have no tolerance to alcohol and in many towns a nightly ritual involves a little mobile prison being driven round, loading senseless men and sometimes women into the cage, with unceremonious contempt.

The unceremonious contempt was rehearsed in many other arenas. At Ayers Rock, known as Uluru, there were copious signs asking tourists not to climb up, because it is considered the holiest place in the Songlines. The snake of unconcerned visitors slithered up and down all day, obvious to anything except their own desire to get up to the top and take a picture. The Aboriginals may be a degraded people, but there is such a tendency to revel in reminding them of the fact, instead of giving them help and some respect.

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