Leading article: The super-rich should be in this too

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The political season reopens this week, with the noise of the riots and looting of 6-9 August still echoing as MPs assemble tomorrow. One MP says that the riots "vividly revealed human behaviour at its worst: the greed, recklessness, and lack of responsibility a few in our society feel towards their fellow man. Those are the same flaws, the same charges that were rightly levelled at the bankers during the financial crisis".

That was not John McDonnell, the left-wing Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, who talked of the "ethos of looting bankers". No, it was Matthew Hancock, the new Conservative MP for West Suffolk, who wrote in The Times that "it is not left-wing to criticise the moral vacuum at the top as well as the bottom of society".

Something significant seems to be happening. Mr Hancock is no eccentric Tory. He was special adviser to George Osborne in opposition and is still close to the Chancellor; nor is he isolated. Mr Hancock has even written a book, published this week, with fellow MP Nadhim Zahawi, Masters of Nothing, which calls for greater responsibility from the highly paid swashbucklers of the City.

Mark Reckless, the new Tory MP for Rochester, last week advocated higher taxes on the "very wealthy", including the mansion tax propounded by Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary. And Jesse Norman, the new Tory MP for Hereford, wrote last week: "Twenty years ago the average chief executive of a FTSE 100 company earned 17 times the average employee's pay; now it is more than 75 times. Most of this is not merit-related, and excessive pay is a matter of serious and legitimate public concern."

As we report today, this excess is exaggerated by pensions. According to research to be published by the Trades Union Congress, the average value of a FTSE 100 chief executive's pension fund is £3.9m, which is 130 times greater than the £30,000 average fund – in a country where nearly half of employees have no provision beyond the basic state pension.

When Ed Miliband recently attacked the "selfish, greedy and immoral" bankers "who took millions while destroying people's savings", there were those, stuck in pre-credit-crunch thinking, who thought he might offend the aspiring classes. That the Labour leader has a feel for where the new centre ground of politics lies, however, was shown last weekend when Mr Osborne, the Chancellor, criticised the "leeches on society" who hide their wealth in offshore bank accounts.

Indeed, it would seem that Mr Miliband actually faces the opposite danger, which is that bright, young, compassionate Conservatives may seize the initiative from Labour in devising imaginative ways of ensuring that the rich meet more of their responsibilities. Remarkably, as we also report today, Mr Hancock and Mr Zahawi suggest that having more women in City boardrooms could encourage more responsible corporate behaviour (which, when Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, suggested it, was disparaged by other Tories).

Mr Reckless, meanwhile, proposed several policies that seem sensible ways of extracting more money from the super-rich, without raising the top rate of income tax. He wants to end the use of shell companies to avoid stamp duty on expensive homes and to charge capital gains tax on property owned by non-UK residents.

The first test for the Government, though, is whether it will impose the tough rules to separate retail and investment banking proposed by Sir John Vickers.

We do not believe that the banks would leave the country if higher taxes and tighter regulation were imposed, just as the bankers failed to carry out their threats to go to Switzerland when Alistair Darling imposed a one-off extra tax on their bonuses at the end of 2009. As one banker said at the time: "Have you ever been to Geneva?"

Britain is a great place in which to do business, and would be a better place only if, as a nation, we really did feel that we are "all in this together". On this, David Cameron is in danger of sounding confused. In his radio interview last week, he said: "Some people almost say that until we deal with the problem of inequality in our society, there is nothing you can do to deal with rioting."

On the contrary, to be "all in this together", a tough response to the looting and stealing has to be balanced by an equally tough demand that those at the top of society show responsibility too.

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