Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Soak the rich (when they are dead)

I know vastly rich offspring who endlessly fight each other and the state over their legacies
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The Independent Online

I woke up with a start on Sunday morning, my ear bitten into by Esther Rantzen's sanctimonious voice: "Our children will be taxed to extinction", she yowled on Radio 4. Her two well-heeled and well-connected companions, Michael Portillo and the journalist Sarah Sands, shared her pain as they agreed with her that inheritance tax is a travesty.

Rantzen, famous as a champion of consumer rights and star of TV adverts encouraging personal injury accident claims, now clamours for tax exemption for her brood after she is gone. Few things are more nauseating than the privileged bewailing their lot; but there is one: politicians eager to placate the spoilt cats. Stephen Byers, for one, a Blairite free-marketer, a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Once again, Byers leaps from obscurity to proffer a policy to help the rich keep even more of their money than they have been allowed to do under this friendly government. Inheritance tax, Byers says is "unfair and punitive". It is "a penalty on hard work, thrift and enterprise".

He praises this wheeze as another example of New Labour's "pragmatic and modernising approach". Although only 6 per cent of estates today pay an inheritance levy, high earners are in perpetual ferment over this tax and increasingly so, because they know wealth in that class is rising exponentially, as are property values in desirable areas. One day the long arm of the tax law will get to them, they worry, and steal the money meant for their offspring, at least that small part they haven't stashed away in offshore, tax-free havens.

To give Byers credit, the policy change, if adopted, will win his ailing party much cheap support. But the fortunes of the nation as opposed to the party should matter more even to this gang of unethical pleasers. There is such a thing as society and the bonds between us are not only cultural but economic.

Good governance should result in a reduction of distance between the rich and poor, not a growing chasm which is what we now have. The wealthy already pay less and the poor more than they should in taxes. Abolishing inheritance tax is a symbolic act, a confirmation that the children of the rich - however indolent and useless they are - have more intrinsic human worth than the rest.

By definition, inheritance tax gives to those who have not put in the effort and skills that went into the making of the wealth. It is bestowed, not earned. Taxes come into play when money changes hands. Money passing from parents and grandparents to children and grandchildren is no different from any other transaction where money moves from one person to another.

Families accruing large gains through appreciation of their wealth in assets can, without inheritance tax, escape any tax on that increase by passing on those assets before they die. That advantage is now seen across the middle classes - in my family too.

Some of my friends who have bought their kids flats and businesses are doing their children no favours. In her brilliant new book The Price of Privilege, the American psychoanalyst Madeline Levine writes that children in upper-middle class households are suffering unprecedented levels of mental and emotional problems and are self-harming and spending their way to hell.

My father died penniless in 1970. My mother received basic income support and - with financial help from me - managed to live happily, always blessing Allah for her life and giving to charity. She left us bits of old gold jewellery to share between us, precious memories of a loved woman. In the painful month after her death, I closed her bank account - with only a few hundred pounds and that was it, a small, generous life washed clean.

Among my acquaintances abroad are some vastly rich offspring who endlessly fight each other and the states they live in over legacies and taxes. It is grotesque what they are prepared to do to get the first and avoid the second. In one case, £1m-plus in cash lies in a suitcase in a bank vault, money made in the black economy which cannot be spent because the kids hate each other and threaten to tell the authorities who would sweep it up as unpaid taxes.

Like many of Labour's impulsive, bad policies this one is a bastard child of the US neo-cons and their libertarian economist supporters. In 2001 George Bush repealed their estate tax, paid by 2 per cent of the citizenry. The Cambridge academic David Runcie writes in The London Review of Books: "[for 100 years] it had been generally assumed there was widespread support for the idea that unearned wealth passed between generations, creating pockets of aristocratic privilege was not part of the American dream." (Interestingly a sunset clause kills off this concession in 2011, perhaps because by then the real damage will have revealed itself. )

The campaign for the abolition of the tax was astute and breathtakingly dishonest. They branded it a "death tax"; claimed it punished gays and blacks who had struggled to make a little money; that it was unjust. Grover Norquist, a fundamentalist anti-tax guru, led the charge, claiming death duties were a sign of class envy and hate, and discriminated appallingly against a small number of people: "The morality that says it is OK to do something to a small group ... is the morality that says the Holocaust is OK because it didn't target everyone." They won.

William Gates snr - who inherited fame and fortune from his son Bill, the richest individual in the world - and George Soros opposed the repeal. Bill Gates has said he will dispense of most of his fortune in his lifetime. Not all the loaded are hopelessly greedy and venal.

Be prepared for the same sweeping, emotive debates in this country, if Byers get this idea through - and he will because he is his master's voice. His master worships millionaires. Let us hope there are still some Labour MPs prepared to stop the sale of their most precious values - equality and meritocratic competition.

When we die our two children will get assets I could never have imagined. I hope society ensures they pay all due tax bills. If anything we fear that getting too much of a leg-up may make our kids less careful and even more consumerist than they are already.

We don't owe them this freebee. We have brought them up to be ambitious, to make it. That is our job. Giving them handouts is not. Nor is it a responsibility of a responsible government.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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