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Sean O'Grady: Buffett and the French are on their own


In France and America the super-rich – including Liliane Bettencourt (Europe's wealthiest woman and the L'Oreal heiress) and Warren Buffett, (the US investor who pays just $7m on his fortune of around $50bn) – are clamouring to pay more tax. Yet in Britain, the Chancellor is thinking aloud about cutting the top rate of tax. What is going on?

Firstly, the cause of "solidarity" in Britain has never been well supported. It is indeed a long time since a government minister personally (and anonymously) donated a fifth of his own private wealth to the Exchequer, as Stanley Baldwin did after the Great War – some £150,000, or about £6m in today's money. His example was not followed, then or now.

Secondly, there is justifiable scepticism about how much higher taxes on the rich actually yield. The 50p rate is said to bring in an extra £2.5bn or so; but that may be an overestimate. The very rich have always had little trouble in avoiding their obligations, and not all have yet had time to rearrange their affairs and put their funds beyond the reach of HMRC. The French bosses and Mr Buffett are thoroughly unrepresentative, because they don't want to dodge their obligations.

A serious assault on the national debt would need much higher taxes on "Middle England". Which politician is going to volunteer to do that?