“A fully-equipped Duke costs as much to keep as two Dreadnoughts - and they are just as great a terror - and they last longer.”
Lloyd George, Speech in Newcastle, 1909
“The nation finds itself charged with a National Debt which may… possibly amount in gross figures to something like ten thousand million pounds ; and committed to a governmental expenditure, including the necessary services of the Local Authorities, of something like a thousand million pounds a year— sums never heretofore even contemplated by the wildest of theorisers.
The problem of how to deal with finance of this magnitude—involving, as it must, in the society of to-day, the sharpest issues between class and class—between those who, whether by hand or by brain, live by producing and those who live by merely owning—will presently dominate our politics”
Sidney Webb,”National Finance and a Levy on Capital, What the Labour party intends, Fabian Tract 188, 1918
“is there a time-limited contribution you can ask in some way or another from people of considerable wealth so they feel they are making a contribution to the national effort?”
Nick Clegg, today.
We don’t do the politics of envy like we used to, eh?
That said, the debates of today still carry the faint echoes of the past. Today, Nick Clegg talked about a wealth tax. Sort of. He suggested that people with the broadest shoulders should pay more in the short term as part of our fiscal consolidation.His rhetoric might not have been of Lloyd-George’s quality, nor as incisive as Webb, but the same general principles appeared to be at work.
I was intrigued by the re-emergence of this debate, because it’s something I instinctively support, and also because I know that the history of attempts to tax assets by progressive reformers suggests that life is always, always more complicated than things first appear.
Whether it’s the campaign for Land taxes before the first world war, the post Great war attacks on the”Rentier” class, or Liberal proposals for Land Value Taxes or Labour talk of Capital Levies in the Thirties, right up to the Labour government of the 70s attempts to tax wealth, it’s much easier to have a noble egalitarian intent than a workable policy.
In part, this might be because politicians who style themselves Progressive are simply not very good at defining what they want out of the tax system. Have a listen to Simon Hughes here, and try and work out if he has the faintest idea what a Tax on wealth would actually involve, how much it would raise, or who he thinks should be the targets of this taxation. Answers on a postcard to £2 million Townhouse, Development Gain Ave, Bermondsey, SE1.
A second reason might be that British politicians – and I include myself in this – are not very good at taking the work of academic economists and fiscal experts into account in designing workable tax systems. Jill Rutter, quoting Paul Johnson, has made the point that “we had strategies for education, for health, indeed for much of public spending – but no British government had ever seen the need to produce a tax strategy.” Nor are we particularly good at anticipating the difficulties of reform, whether practical (What registers and information are required for Land value taxation) or political (how exactly do you handle the concern of a pensioner who has paid off their mortgage, has a substantial housing asset, lives cheaply, but has little income? Have we forgotten already how popular George Osborne’s proposed cut in inheritance tax was among people who would not benefit from it?).
It slightly disturbed me that neither Clegg nor Hughes mentioned the Mirrlees review, (neither did the somewhat astonished LibDem Treasury spokeswoman in the House of Lords, Baroness Kramer having clearly been blindsided by her Leaders post holiday enthusiasm). Like Michael White, I suspect that by starting from broad assertions and windy generalities, as Mr Clegg has, you open the door to all sorts of fears, complexities and oppositions. (An emergency wealth tax raises the question of how exactly do you stop people hiding wealth, or delaying transactions that reveal wealth, until the emergency has passed?)
I think there are extremely strong grounds for changing the structure of taxation in the UK so it falls in households very differently than it does today. Done right, this could encourage growth, promote equality and improve living standards for broad swathes of the country.
I also suspect, however, that the sort of emergency sticking plaster Nick Clegg talks about would very likely do none of those things, and will probably prove ineffective even in the one transparently clear objective, that of placing Mr Clegg firmly in the tradition of Loyd-George and Webb. (Except in one respect, which is that Lloyd-George and Webb both failed to see their policies delivered.)