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The moralising, filthy rich hypocrite

The benefits of being rich are numerous, and probably don’t need a great deal of explanation from me. The ability to travel the world at the drop of a hat is, I imagine, one of the many advantages great wealth brings, as is the possibility of doing away with a number of the banal inconveniences that plague everyday life. Not having to get out of bed at the crack of dawn for work has its appeal, as does eating the best food and never having to cook any of the damn stuff.

Just as important as jet-setting and attending “exclusive” parties these days, however, is the obligatory portfolio of charity work that comes with being incredibly rich. One is far more likely to turn on the television today and hear a member of the global elite talking about a project for clean water in Africa than about their recent purchase of a mock-Tudor mansion in Hertfordshire. And rarely does a week go by without the appearance of a member of the super-rich in a distressed part of the world with their shirt sleeves rolled up – if not actually trying to save the world, then usually throwing a great deal of money at a small proportion of it.

There is no doubt of course that some of those fortunate enough to be wealthy are genuinely concerned with the plight of the poor. Just as there are conservatives with nothing to be conservative about, so there are aristocrats, “entrepreneurs” and those that are simply swimming in cash who do have a well-developed and genuine social conscience.

Another type among the super-rich, however – some would say the dominant type – is the wealthy individual who very publicly gives generously with one hand while ruthlessly seeking to minimise what they pay in tax with the other. The moralising hypocrite, you might call this lot.

Perhaps the most well-known figure in this mould is Bono, the lead singer of U2. As well as being the frontman of one of the world’s biggest rock bands, Bono fancies himself as something of an anti-poverty activist, and can often be heard urging people to give generously to a number of causes. Bono has even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times for his charity work.

In 2006, however, on the back of the massive Live 8 concert the year before – which U2 played a large part in organising and which was supposed to “make poverty history” – Bono’s band moved their tax liability from Ireland to the Netherlands. The move came after Ireland scrapped tax breaks that allowed musicians and artists to avoid paying taxes on royalties. When asked about the decision, U2’s lead guitarist David Evans, aka “The Edge”, said that of course the band were trying to be tax-efficient, because “who doesn’t want to be tax-efficient?”

The answer, at a guess, would be those who spend a great deal of time moralising about the world’s poor. Away from the self-congratulatory press conferences where Bono smugly demanded we send our money to the dispossessed, U2 were simultaneously cutting the feet from under their own government’s ability to help the world’s most desperate people–the same people Bono was feigning such grave concern for.

The hypocrisy of the super-rich is nothing new of course. What is astonishing is that they are so consistently let off the hook for it. Nobody bats an eyelid today at a campaign against homelessness featuring a politician who would sooner sell his own mother than interfere in the exploitative buy-to-let market; or a coffee chain publicising its fair trade credentials while preventing its own workers from joining a union. Both will stand on a soap box and espouse their unflinching dedication to the downtrodden – and both will be given an extraordinarily easy-ride by the media when doing so.

It is quite possible that we have the late Princess of Wales to thank for at least a portion of this fetishisation of charity above all other virtues. Her death at a young age saw perhaps the closest thing Britain has ever seen to mass hysteria; and with it the passing into folklore of the belief that her goodness was tied up to a large extent with the notion that she “did a lot for charity” – despite the fact that she left her entire estate to her own super-rich family.

It feels like all of this has been preparing the ground in some way for David Cameron; for if there is one thing which seamlessly gels Cameron’s conservatism together, it is the belief that poverty is best left to wealthy individuals to remedy, rather than government. His Big Society approach to social provision can perhaps best be summed up with the phrase: do it yourself, because we don’t care.

It would be an extremely brave or stupid person who said there was not a long way to go in terms of democratising the way public funds are spent by governments and treasuries. Government spending does, however, at least give us, the public, a degree of a control over where money is spent. Certainly a great deal more than when we rely for the solving of our social problems on the mood swings of a global financial elite – the same elite who threaten to pull down the roof whenever the prospect of paying a few extra pence in the pound in income tax is proposed.

As Clement Attlee pointed out some half a century ago:

Charity is a cold, grey, loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.”

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