The Independent London Newspaper
26th April 2019

ILLTYD HARRINGTON: It makes the world go round

    Labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Dennis Healy, brought a Labour conference to its feet when he promised to ‘squeeze the rich until the pips squeak’

    Published: 9 October, 2014

    I WAS five years of age in the temporary care of my dark, saturnine Irish grandfather. He looked curiously at me when I asked: “Who is the oldest man in the world?” He took down from the bookshelf his Daily Herald annual book of photographs and opened it. “There he is, 100 years old, John D. Rockefeller. He is also one of the richest.” A lesson I never forgot, after looking at that parchment of a face. It was said he earned $100 a minute from his oil and railway investments. 

    In The Rich, John Kampfner, former editor of the New Statesman, has attempted to add to the mass of information which is at its best in The Sunday Times Rich List. He argues that they are, more or less, a permanent group in history. The French Revolution in 1789 proclaimed Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. 

    Of these, Equality is the battleground for the redistribution of wealth and position, and is resisted by the power of finance. In spite of changes and some victories, we are on a long march. The gap between rich and poor is graphically illustrated by the indisputable fact that 85 individuals own the equivalent of what 50 per cent of the world’s poor own. Now that is a big division. The rich have on their snide lawyers with snake eyes. Their canon is: “Why pay when you can avoid?” 

    In the autumn of 1985 I represented London at a New York gathering of local government grandees. At a spectacular reception on the top of the Empire State Building I met with Leona Helmsley, the vivid wife of the owner. A few years later she startled a Federal Court when she was faced with charges of tax avoidance by tossing out this famous remark: “Only little people pay taxes.” 

    How lopsided this world is: African children with no food, British cats with gourmet dishes. I saw a quote recently that if Bill Gates dropped a $100 dollar note, by the time he picked it up he would have earned another $300. It must be said, in fairness to him, that he has poured money and personal involvement into tackling Aids and famine in the southern Sahara. 

    We have advanced very little since the Liberal government on 1908 began introducing a series of taxes on wealth. In spite of all this legislation, the heavy money floods towards the super rich. Every five-year-old knows what goes on in the Cayman Islands, but that is not the only operation that works constantly for the rich. Was it all that long ago when Labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Dennis Healy, brought a Labour conference to its feet when he promised to “squeeze the rich until the pips squeak”? What a contrast to when Ed Balls urges us to prepare for more austerity. 

    Look at the champagne, caviar, gambling dens and country estates, side by side with a wage freeze of five years for millions of workers. All the while Roman Abramovich and other oligarchs queue up to bring their splendid yachts into port. An exuberant Tory conference cheered an attack on human rights and a promise to flatten benefits. 

    There is an argument, often within the higher reaches of the Labour Party, that soaking the rich is not the answer. You won’t find it in this book either. But in that wonderful poem by Oliver Goldsmith The Deserted Village, it says: “Ill fares the land... where wealth accumulates and men decay.” 

    Beveridge’s welfare state is under sustained attack. There is no danger from the parliamentary opposition. Zhou Enlai was once asked what were the consequences of the French Revolution. That wise old head answered: “It’s too early to tell.” 

    We live in hope. 

    The Rich: From Slaves to Super Yachts, A 2,000 year History, by John Kampfner (Little Brown, £25)