Or why we should all hope that Dave and George get together with Steve really soon.
On the World at One (Radio 4) this lunchtime, Dame Stephanie Shirley (or Steve to many of her acquaintances) was interviewed in the ongoing aftermath of George Osbornes 2012 budget. She was not complaining about the granny tax although at the age of 79 she certainly will be affected by it. However Steve is someone who has made a fortune and is now determined to give it all away (before she dies). Wikipedia estimates her fortune to have been worth £150M and she is reputed to have already given £60M away. Her generosity appears to go to causes that all of us would want to support such as autism (she had an autistic son).
Her frustration with the budget is the decision to cap tax relief to charitable donors and what was most telling was her comments about the failure of the Government to listen to people like her. On a personal level this is not necessarily a surprise as she was honoured by Gordon Brown as UK’s Ambassador of Philanthropy and she held this role until Dave and George got their new jobs. However in a more general sense this does present all of us with a bit of a quandary. Steve conceded that as someone without dependents she will give away all of her money, with or without tax breaks. However she clearly believes that others will not be so single-minded. Steve could of course just be one dissenting voice amongst what must be a relatively small group of serial philanthropists. However she suggested that others were as concerned as she was.
The social fabric of our country does not depend on one or two multimillionaires (although I guess a few autistic charities may be less sanguine). However it does depend on our political leaders being people who are in touch with society at some level or another. Many of us would like to think that they would be in touch with ordinary people like you or I. That is clearly never going to be the case with George or David. However all is not lost if they have some point of reference to the world at large. Steve Shirley is far from ordinary (read her Biography – I have read several accounts and I am a big fan) but she is very aware of the needs of people around her.
I would like Dave and George to be people who make decisions based on the many not the few. However they are democratically elected and have never claimed to be every-men. They have however consistently argued that if they diminish the state on our behalf and reduce the burden of a large state on you and I, that this will free us to look after our neighbours in ways that the State will never be able. Indeed in their rhetoric with the burden removed some of us will soar and create wealth beyond our wildest imaginations. In the light of this, their failure to understand the priorities and motivations of Dame Stephanie Shirley seems even more concerning.
Dave and George will never ride the Clapham Omnibus, but they could release people like Steve to give more to people who do. However if they are not connected to society at the bottom, and appear not to be connected at the top either, just what is their purpose. It really shouldn’t matter a jot that a very rich women like Steve Shirley lacks confidence in another couple of rich guys who are every bit as rich as she is. However for the sake of our society I hope that she and they meet soon.
There is some suggestion that the budget change was introduced to block loopholes being exploited by rich people to avoid paying tax. All of us want to ensure that these despicable people are brought to account as soon as possible. However at a time when the state is reducing its support to those who have least, we must not cut off another substantial source of income to our charitable sector.