This may be the least sympathetic political environment for 80 years in which to come to the defence of the wealthy, but I’m perverse.
Hedge-fund mogul Chris Rokos wants to convert an £18m derelict London hotel into a palatial private home, thus restoring the listed building to its “former splendour and original use”. In April, Kensington Council granted planning permission, but only if Mr Rokos forfeited £500,000 towards “the provision of affordable housing elsewhere”.
Who cares, right? Worth £90m, the guy is loaded. If he’s got it, so goes the logic, he should give it to us. He wants something, so we’ve got one over on him.
Yet Mr Rokos’s application sets an alarming precedent even for punters with finances merely head-above-water. True, arrangements to build additional low-cost housing are sometimes made with commercial developers, but this project is a single-family private home. So the council is selling planning permission. It’s bad enough that to construct tool sheds in our own back gardens we have to ask “pretty please?” first. But must we now pay bribes for our tool sheds on top of the paperwork and the long delays?
The larger social gestalt that produces such a punitive levy is more unsettling still. A worldwide recession instigated by a handful of reckless financiers has insidiously stigmatised money itself. All gains appear ill-gotten. The bad smell emanating from Wall Street and the City has imbued anyone packing more than chump change with a moral stink. We have veritably criminalised making money. The proposition that rich people have rights, too, has flown out the window. Furthermore, the socialism that Thatcher purportedly put out to pasture is galloping over the fence. If you earn any serious money, you owe it to your country to give it away — or should I say “give it back”, since we are increasingly of the view that all wealth belongs to the state. Therefore, the state doesn’t so much confiscate its citizens’ funds as grant permission to retain them.
With that 50 per cent UK tax rate in the pipeline, this is a fitting juncture at which to recall that everyone who has accumulated a little cash is not an evil banker. Many hard-working entrepreneurs have put in long hours, taking big risks with time, capital or both. By dint of canniness and determination, they finally come into their own — only to discover that the rewards are not their own. Behold, they’ve not been working all this time for themselves and their families; they’ve been working for the state. As a novelist, I’m especially intrigued by the emotional implications of this nasty surprise.
Let’s take it as a given that there’s no comparison between the anxiety of earning too much and the far greater anxiety of earning too little. Nevertheless, earning money has indeed become an anxiety. I can personally testify that these days bringing in any appreciable income is actively unpleasant.
For 30 years, I earned peanuts. I’m not complaining. I was doing what I wanted, writing books, and considering that they continually lost money I was fortunate to have kept getting manuscripts into print. One novel finally took off commercially when I was 48. Now, writers are entrepreneurs. Most of their businesses fail, and in deciding to write professionally I took a rather poorly calculated risk. Beating the odds, an investment of time and effort has now paid off. Successful writers don’t earn nearly as much as the public imagines, but I confess: I now make more money.
In which I take little enjoyment. Pushing my head above the parapet, income makes me a target. Like any American expat, I have two rapacious governments breathing down my neck, and the more I earn, the more I mark myself, like Rokos, as fair game. When an unexpected foreign rights payment comes in, am I pleased? No, I groan. It messes up my estimated tax regime. The better a year I have, the more fearful I become of a little brown envelope in the post.
Is this what we want, even economically? Newspapers speculate that the 50 per cent tax bracket may result in the well-off “choosing to make less money”. That’s me. I’ve now no motivation to take on lucrative work that will only make me more miserable. I’ve no motivation to become one of those people that a council can bilk just because they have money that, in the moral terms of our new gestalt, isn’t really theirs.
I’m hardly asking for pity here but I was happier earning next to nothing. My life was bureaucratically uncluttered, my tax returns were simple, and I did not live in fear. I value my larger readership, but were I to return to the meagre income of yesteryear, I might honestly be more contented. Besides, denying my two governmental stalkers blood from a stone would provide a spiteful satisfaction.