I’m going to rant. I’m sorry, but sometimes something I read on-line will get under my skin to the extent that I can’t stop mentally picking away at it, and this week has seen one such article.
It was written one year ago today. but the author, Abi Wilkinson, re-posted a link to it this week because it is pertinent to the debate about the tax-affairs of MPs.
You can read the original article here, but if you can’t be bothered then, in summary, it argues that there should be no familial inheritance and that, upon death, the estate of the deceased belongs to the state. The basis for this argument is that the inheritors have done nothing to deserve the windfall that inheritance can bring and that inheritance actively blocks the transfer of wealth from those who have money to those who need it.
The article centres around two children, Jemima and Edward, who are going to receive an inheritance of £1,000,000, which they are going to fritter away climbing the housing ladder, buying a new Merc “that is a little bit out of [their] usual price bracket” and going on holiday somewhere sunny and posh.
I like the sentiment behind this article and I agree that we live in a vastly unequal society and pretending that this inequality is the natural and sacrosanct order of things is a terrible and inhumane attitude. In fact I only have three objections to the system described in the article…
- It’s unworkable
- It’s wrong
- It dooms us to an eternity of Conservative governments, each more terrible than the last, as they revel in the capitalist joy that comes from knowing that the left will never be in a position to regain power
Aside from those three things it’s fine.
The clue to the first two problems with the system proposed lie with Jemima and Edward and their inheritance. They are, respectively, a barrister and an accountant – solid middle/upper-middle class careers, that lend credence to the supporting argument that they’ve both already benefited from their parents’ wealth by enjoying a good education. They both have London homes in their early 30s – an increasingly rare experience – so they probably got a little parental help with deposits as well, the lucky bastards. The little dig about Edward’s Mercedes seals the deal…we’re not meant to like Jemima and her brother, and if we don’t like them then we’re happier for their inheritance to be spent on the 60 special needs teach assistants that the article, incorrectly, asserts we could alternatively funnel the £1,000,000 into.
Also, as far as the article ever details, this £1m is in bundles of cash, ready to dish out.
Always beware of any new system that is worked through with only the simplest possible example. ‘The devil is in the detail’ is one of life’s great truisms for a reason.
What if Jemima is a school-teacher, suffering a long commute from wherever in London you can rent a house on a teacher’s salary…Coventry, I assume? What if Edward is a theatre-nurse who is still living at home? What if that £1,000,000 represents not a bulging portfolio of off-shore interests, but a modest life insurance policy and a London house bought in the 70s?
Maybe Edward reduced his working hours (and his pay) to spend more time at home with his dying mother, rather than have her packed off to a home somewhere. After 2 years of looking after the day-to-day needs of his increasingly frail parent, yes, he’d quite like a holiday, but he’s also going to bung a couple of grand to a charity that helps the elderly.
Are we so happy for the government to swoop in and take the estate in that scenario? Sure, that million pounds might only be benefiting 2 people, but it’s somehow harder to say they’re “undeserving” of it and, ultimately, tax-law cannot be written to use virtue as a yardstick.
What about George? The bulk of the estate he’s receive from his parents is the village pub that they’ve run for 30 years. George has worked there since he was 18 and has managed the place since his dad retired 6 years ago. A big brewery chain has offered £1.2 million for the pub, with plans to turn it into a family restaurant, catering primarily to tourists. George doesn’t want that, but he doesn’t have anywhere near the resources to make a competitive offer.
Susan, who is 8, has lost both of her parents in a car accident. They had both paid insurance premiums for years to ensure that she would be provided for if something like this happened, and the government will thank them for that. Susan’s grandparents will take her in, but the money that her parents specifically intended for her would help make her childhood a lot more comfortable. Unfortunately Abi Wilkinson’s article argues that the wishes of the dead don’t impact on the living, so the money from Susan’s parents will go towards making other children in care more comfortable, or buying army equipment, or something; it’s all good, right?
David wants to know if the state takes everything, as he’d rather like to keep his deceased parents’ wedding rings, as a reminder of them. Brian wants to keep hold of his grandfather’s war medals that have become a family heirloom. Lily’s earliest memory of her father is him showing her some paintings he owned and proudly telling her they were genuine Rembrandt’s, so it’s OK for her to keep those, yes?
What about company shares, can they be passed on? Is the intention of this law to stop family owned businesses being handed down? If company shares can be passed on then can parents sign over their assets to a company to dodge the 100% inheritance tax? It might be a bit of a hassle, but if the alternative is having literally everything they own taken by the state the minute they flatline then it’s probably worth the effort.
Are spouses allowed to inherit? Do they lose half of anything that’s in shared-ownership? How about bequests to charity? That’s a major source of income for many of them; and I’m sure that when the state is reaping (almost literally) all of these estates there’ll be a lot less need for charities…and I’m equally sure that charities won’t believe you when you tell them that.
Is this new law truly egalitarian? When the Queen dies will Balmoral and Sandringham be placed on the open market? Can Charles inherit the properties, such as Buckingham Palace, that are held in trust by the Crown Estates? Can I put my house into a trust before I peg it? If so the new law is toothless, if not then it’s inequitable.
For that matter, can Charles inherit the title of ‘King’? Has he done anything to deserve it? It, along with any other titles, is a commodity that could be sold for national gain, after all. Is it the intention of this change in tax law that the idea of hereditary peerage and monarchy be ended? It’s certainly not a problem for me if it is, but it is for other people, and that’s where the real problem is.
What’s wrong, deeply wrong, with this proposal is that it represents the very worst of the po-faced, nanny knows best, what’s yours in mine excesses of the left. It represents a vision of socialism that the UK electorate has rejected time and time again. Although the author attempts to the use the right’s arguments of not expecting something-for-nothing and being prepared to work hard against them what she actually creates is a stick for the right to use as a weapon.
Politics in the UK has to be a fight over the centre ground. Where that centre ground is can be changed, but it changes gradually. A paradigm shift like this is a gift to the right; “They want your house!”, “They want to stop you leaving YOUR money to YOUR children!”, “They won’t be happy until the Queen is on the council house waiting list!”. That is the sort of rhetoric that scares people away from the left and gives the centre-ground, and election victory, to the right.
The author struggles to understand why some many people oppose inheritance tax, when it affects only 6% of the population…it’s for the same reason that the lower socio-economic groups vote for the Tories, even while having their benefits eyed up for cost savings, it’s ultimately why people by lottery tickets, even though the maths says that doing so will only make them poorer. It’s better to spend a couple of quid and have the hope of riches, it’s better to risk a benefit cut if it comes from the party that’s promising (however falsely) to stimulate the economy and get you a job, it’s better to oppose the inheritance tax and hope that you one day need it.
It’s that aspiration, even if it’s hopeless aspiration, that the far-left don’t understand, which is strange – when they’re proposing ‘fairer’ systems that are fundamentally flawed and doomed to be roundly rejected by the electorate are they not dreaming of inheriting the kingdom?