TOM HARRIS: When did ambition become so toxic that being well-off is seen as inherently bad?

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Wealth — especially in large amounts — has long been frowned upon by us Brits.

There has always been something unfashionable, perhaps even something un-British, about ostentatious shows of money.

Under First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s vice-like grip, Scotland in particular has become a place where wealth dare not speak its name. That is truer now than ever before.

This week, for instance, we learned that NHS Scotland leaders have discussed abandoning the founding principles of our healthcare system in place of a ‘two-tier’ service in which the wealthy would pay a premium for treatment.

But we’re not even talking about the wealthy here, are we? We’re talking about the aspirational middle classes — the deputy headteachers, the local manufacturing bosses. 

Which begs the question: at what income level would the premium be applied? £40,000? £80,000? And remember, these are people who have already paid tax towards the NHS.

The proposal, revealed from leaked minutes of a meeting by health service chiefs in September, comes as a massive £2.1 billion ‘black hole’ in the SNP government budget was exposed earlier this summer.

This week, for instance, we learned that NHS Scotland leaders have discussed abandoning the founding principles of our healthcare system in place of a ‘two-tier’ service in which the wealthy would pay a premium for treatment. (File image)

Under First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's (pictured) vice-like grip, Scotland in particular has become a place where wealth dare not speak its name

Under First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s (pictured) vice-like grip, Scotland in particular has become a place where wealth dare not speak its name

Ailing

In her defence, Sturgeon has pushed back against her NHS executives, saying that any such reform to the health service is ‘not up for debate’.

And quite right, too; how could she expect the higher-earning middle classes — who contribute the largest portion of tax to the exchequer — to pay for the damage her party has done to Scotland’s now ailing health service?

There’s a bigger point here, too. For while this extreme proposal says much about the SNP’s incompetency in government, it says more about the instinctive knee-jerk reaction of our political classes and the wider Establishment to target higher earners every time the collection plate has to be passed.

Indeed, it’s not just in Scotland where this anti-wealth agenda has taken hold.

Last week's Autumn Statement signalled that such sentiment has even leached into our Tory Government, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt (pictured together) demonstrated their readiness to punish the middle classes for Britain's problems

Last week’s Autumn Statement signalled that such sentiment has even leached into our Tory Government, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt (pictured together) demonstrated their readiness to punish the middle classes for Britain’s problems

Last week’s Autumn Statement signalled that such sentiment has even leached into our Tory Government, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt demonstrated their readiness to punish the middle classes for Britain’s problems.

Yes, we all need to tighten our belts and brace for tough times ahead. And yes, swift action was required to steady the ship after Liz Truss and her gung-ho chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s overly ambitious vision nearly drove us to disaster.

Stealth

But what Hunt and Sunak unveiled last week was unprecedented. Frozen income and inheritance tax thresholds designed to harvest cash by stealth; an eye-watering cut in the tax-free allowance on dividends; hikes in fuel duty; local authorities given the green light to raise council tax; a reduction in the 45p threshold dragging hundreds of thousands into the top rate of income tax. The list goes on.

In all, this £25 billion grab means households will suffer the worst tax burden Britain has seen since World War II — and, as the Mail argued last week, it amounts to little more than a shameless soaking of the nation’s strivers.

For while the honest and hard-working Brits who drive productivity will have to pay up, benefit claimants and pensioners will see their incomes increase with inflation. All of which led many commentators to ask what a Conservative government is for if it is only going to act like the Opposition benches when it comes to finances.

So where did it all go wrong? When did ambition and the innately British desire for self-improvement become so toxic even the Tories shun them?

So where did it all go wrong? When did ambition and the innately British desire for self-improvement become so toxic even the Tories shun them? Pictured: Chancellor Jeremy Hunt

So where did it all go wrong? When did ambition and the innately British desire for self-improvement become so toxic even the Tories shun them? Pictured: Chancellor Jeremy Hunt

Much of the blame surely lies with the Left-wing liberal agenda which large swathes of the mainstream media have persisted in pushing ever since the Brexit referendum.

The 2016 vote signalled a shift in the public mood, to move away from the high-tax, low-ambition status quo, and unleash Britain’s potential. But disgruntled Remainers didn’t see it that way, and ever since they’ve vociferously resisted any such change.

And they’re not alone. This neo-Marxist idea that wealth is inherently bad has spread internationally: look at the outcome this week of the climate talks at Cop27 in Egypt.

Guilt-ridden developed countries have agreed to pay ‘reparations’ to poorer nations to help them cope with rising temperatures.

Of course, this ridiculous deal ignores the fact the Industrial Revolution transformed millions of lives here and around the world. Life expectancy, public health and general standards of living increased across the board in a relatively short period of time, largely thanks to Western investment and innovation.

But the likes of Labour’s Shadow Climate Secretary Ed Miliband — who has supported calls for British taxpayers to pay for ‘loss and damage’ to nations such as Pakistan and the Maldives — can’t see that. To them, a prosperous Britain is something of which to be ashamed.

Enterprise, risk-taking, aspiration — these characteristics were once feted and admired, recognised as the key to economic progress. But now it feels as if we have to apologise for these values.

And why does this all matter? Well, for anyone concerned about Britain’s future success, it is a cultural problem that must be challenged.

When I was a Labour MP, I once made a speech to an all-girls' school in my Glasgow constituency in which I commended those who intended to enter public service, perhaps as doctors or social workers. Pictured: Tom Harris

When I was a Labour MP, I once made a speech to an all-girls’ school in my Glasgow constituency in which I commended those who intended to enter public service, perhaps as doctors or social workers. Pictured: Tom Harris

When I was a Labour MP, I once made a speech to an all-girls’ school in my Glasgow constituency in which I commended those who intended to enter public service, perhaps as doctors or social workers.

But, I pointed out, there is an alternative course to be taken — one that is equally respectable: ‘Go into business, make stuff, employ people, invent something, market it, sell it, make a profit, make lots of money, and use that money to employ more people.’

And, as Peter Mandelson once said, ‘pay your taxes’.

For the truth is, the public services on which we all depend are not funded by council employees or NHS staff. You couldn’t fund local authorities or hospitals or state schools simply through the taxation of lower earners.

The bulk of the Government’s budget comes from the private sector, from those entrepreneurs who have chosen to take risks and innovate, or those who sell things for a profit, who employ many others, and who — deservedly — have become comparatively wealthy as a result.

It is these people’s taxes that keep our country going. And it is their personal wealth that fires up the economy.

Punish

Right now, Britain is on something of a precipice. Facing down a record-breakingly long recession, we have a choice. 

Do we recognise the enormous contribution the middle classes and the relatively wealthy already make to the Treasury, and help to encourage them to keep Britain afloat (by, for example, being a touch less enthusiastic about increasing their tax bills at every opportunity)?

Or do we want to punish our strivers simply because it makes other people feel better about how hard-pressed they are?

Right now, Britain is on something of a precipice. Facing down a record-breakingly long recession, we have a choice. Pictured: The Bank of England

Right now, Britain is on something of a precipice. Facing down a record-breakingly long recession, we have a choice. Pictured: The Bank of England 

The answer is obvious; and the consequences of a continued anti-wealth, anti-growth mindset cannot be overstated.

Monstering the middle classes will spell disaster. We should be protecting our hardest workers and helping them to help Britain as we try to emerge from the mess that lies ahead. 

Forget that and the only thing we will be striving for is self-destruction.

Tom Harris was Labour MP for Glasgow South from 2001 to 2015.

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