If Ikea were a constituency, it would be a three-way marginal. That was my thought one morning last week as I walked a mile and a half round the Batley branch of the great Swedish retailer behind two keen shoppers (one wearing a pedometer) whom I had driven there as a birthday treat. Here are middle-aged parents buying nursery stuff for pregnant daughters, engaged couples fitting out first flats, Polish families bickering over bargain kitchenware, Muslim housewives chattering behind niqab facemasks, and even what I thought might be a transsexual under a blond beehive.
There’s a Scandinavian sense of equality: no fast track through the labyrinth, no exclusive luxury floor. The customers all seem to belong to that floating-voter category now labelled ‘hard-working families’. They all want to own and improve their homes and make a better life for their children — and all must have a steady breadwinner or they wouldn’t be filling their trolleys.
All are evidence of the continuing turnaround of the economy, in which average earnings are at last rising at 2 per cent above (zero) inflation, and growth in household disposable income has returned to pre-crash levels. But if the store is not crowded as it might be on high days and holidays, that’s because some consumers are still paying down debt rather than racking it up anew, which surely can’t be a bad thing.
The rate of growth took a surprising dip to 0.3 per cent in the first quarter, from 0.6 per cent in late 2014. The annual Rich List tells us that the wealthy have doubled their net worth while the rest of us are only fractionally better off than we were before the financial crisis. That’s two news items the Tories could do without after such a lacklustre campaign. But it doesn’t change the bigger story. The recovery is a work in progress. As George Osborne said, ‘the future of our economy is on the ballot paper’ — and for all the problems he hasn’t solved, and some he’s made worse, the aspirations of Ikea’s voters will be best served by keeping him and David Cameron in Downing Street.
Back to Hong Kong?
When the Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation — as it was then — tried to buy Royal Bank of Scotland in 1981, its chairman Michael (now Lord) Sandberg was treated with cold hauteur by Governor Richardson of the Bank of England, and the bid in due course was ruled out by the Monopolies Commission. When the Midland Bank was in trouble in 1992, the men from Hong Kong were made welcome as rescue bidders, but under the condition that Midland should continue to be run from London. In the nervous phase ahead of the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, it suited the new owners — their origin now disguised in the acronym HSBC — to transfer their domicile to the safety of the UK.
But they remained Hong Kong men at heart, and the prospect of commuting to Canary Wharf from London’s suburbia was no substitute for a mansion on the Peak, a yacht in the harbour and a day’s racing at Sha Tin. Some consolation, perhaps, that as career-long expatriates they could claim non-dom status, and they worked for a bank that could provide top-class tax-sheltering services in Geneva. But Hong Kong tax rates were rock-bottom anyway — and over there, even after the territory joined the People’s Republic, neither the politicians nor the media kicked off about what top executives were paid.
So if you were chief executive Stuart Gulliver and his cohort, you might be thinking every morning as your limo noses into the Limehouse tunnel: why don’t we just go back east? Why stay here, paying Osborne’s punitive ‘banking levy’ and taking all this flak, when only 20 per cent of our global workforce is in the UK and we’ve got to ‘ring-fence’ our branch network into a separate company by 2019 anyway. Maybe we’ll rename it Midland and sell some or all of it to someone else who’s prepared to put up with the hassle, while we make a bigger bundle in Asia and the Middle East. All we need is a convincing excuse — and luckily we’re about to have a choice: a Miliband government that’s even more hostile to big banks than the coalition has been, or a Cameron government that calls an in-out EU referendum, with all the ‘business uncertainty’ that implies. It will be a deep blow to London’s status as the pre-eminent global financial centre, but — you might be thinking, as you catch sight of your drab tower-block HQ, so much less glamorous than HSBC’s Norman Foster masterpiece in Hong Kong — they’re practically inviting us to pack up and leave.
A penalty on aspiration
My item on inheritance tax last week generated lively responses. If Osborne is back next week, here are some ideas for his post-election budget that go beyond vote-grabbing towards the principle that it’s a good thing for those with spare cash to be able to give it away during their lifetime to those, in the family or outside, who they feel deserve or need it, without creating potential tax liabilities.
Why not radically increase the £3,000 annual individual gift allowance that has been frozen since 1981, and the marriage gift allowances that have been frozen since 1984? And why not create a specific allowance that enables the cash-rich to contribute to the school fees of their grandchildren, or other people’s children, without it being counted in their eventual IHT calculation: what could be a better way of distributing wealth down the generations?
The greatest unfairness of IHT (if you accept the principle of it at all) is that, as one reader says, ‘it’s a voluntary tax for the very rich’ who can avoid it by making exempt transfers out of surplus income, or buying swaths of agricultural land, or deploying offshore devices concocted by expensive advisers. But for ‘hard-working families’ it remains a distressing penalty on aspiration. So, George, if we’ve re-elected you, let’s see some action. And if I’m addressing Ed Balls: just don’t make IHT worse, and we’ll all hope to outlive your tenure.