Portrait of the week: gambling politicians, gender rows and a free Julian Assange 

Home The Conservative party withdrew its support from two parliamentary candidates, Craig Williams (who was parliamentary private secretary to the Prime Minister) and Laura Saunders, both of whom the Gambling Commission had been investigating after allegations that bets had been placed on the date of the election. Two Conservative party workers and six policemen were also alleged to have been involved, one of the policemen being under criminal investigation. Others remained under investigation. Labour suspended a parliamentary candidate of its own, Kevin Craig, after being told the Gambling Commission was investigating him betting on failing to win the seat, which he now might. The candidates’ names would still appear on

The deep roots of global inequality

Thomas Piketty, the French economist who shot to fame for writing a colossal work of economics that many people bought but few actually read, recently received some advice. ‘What you write is interesting,’ a friend told him, ‘but couldn’t you make it a little shorter?’ Piketty has answered the call for brevity with a book which by his standards is the equivalent of a Post-it note. It’s certainly ‘brief”– but is it a ‘history of equality’? Alas, no. What we have instead is an eye-wateringly left-wing manifesto for dismantling economic inequality, both domestically and internationally. ‘Inequality is first of all a social, historical and political construction,’ Piketty writes, and the

The confusion at the heart of social care

Boris Johnson’s majority plunged to just 26 last night, following a rebellion over controversial changes to social care plans. Means-tested, state-funded payments will no longer count towards the £86,000 limit on the amount people will have to pay for their care. Those with initial assets worth less than £186,000, and who have received such help, could be worse off as a consequence. Critics have pointed out that this is likely to disproportionately affect residents in the North or the Midlands because of differential house prices. Johnson’s government isn’t the first to tie itself in knots over the issue of social care funding. Successive administrations have failed to bring about reform

Director’s cut | 11 October 2018

‘The role of government is not to pick favourites and subsidise them or protect them.’ So says the government’s industrial strategy, published last year — a document which was supposed to distinguish between a free-market approach and the interventionism favoured by Jeremy Corbyn. Yet in one industry, at least, the government is doing exactly what it says it should not: it is showering firms with subsidies in the hope of generating growth. This week the British Film Institute (BFI) published a report making grand claims for the government’s ‘tax reliefs’ for the film industry. Under this scheme — which is misnamed because it involves subsidies paid out whether or not

‘We need to get creative’

‘It was Plato who said storytellers rule the world,’ observes Mariana Mazzucato, her powerful voice tempered with a beaming smile, ‘But the stories we’re constantly told about how value is created are largely myths. We must rethink where wealth really comes from.’ An economics professor at University College London, Mazzucato is fast emerging as one of the world’s leading public intellectuals. From her high-ceilinged office in Bloomsbury, a host of grant-making bodies on speed dial, this 49-year-old Italian-American is determined to ‘replace our current parasitic system with a more sustainable, symbiotic type of capitalism’. Mazzucato emerged from the academic shadows five years ago, when she wrote The Entrepreneurial State. The

Morality seems to have evolved as much in taxation as it has in flirtation

What would a perfect tax system look like? For companies, profit taxes should be competitively low, to encourage inward investment, with generous reliefs for start-ups, research and capital projects; the corporate tax code should be designed to generate rising productivity and prosperity rather than to maximise short-term tax revenues, and companies should acknowledge a duty to contribute wherever their profits arise. For individuals, income tax rates should rise only to the lowest level that maximises revenue collection and thresholds should be high enough to keep low earners out of the net, while pension savers and first-time home-buyers should be incentivised. Citizens and companies alike should be proud to pay fair

Progressive | 11 May 2017

I laughed, in a sympathetic way I hope, when I read a letter in the Daily Telegraph pointing out that Steve Hewlett, the media commentator who died this year, had admitted ruefully that when he had heard that his cancer was progressive he had thought for a moment this was a good thing. The progressive alliance is this election’s equivalent to the old ‘broad left’, which once inserted foaming revolutionaries into respectable politics. I complained about this label progressive before the 2015 election. Progressive politicians tend to favour progressive taxation, even though the term is merely technical, indicating that the higher the sum taxed (above £80,000 income, say), the greater

The case for lowering taxes

There’s a saying that when you tax something, you get less of it. Sometimes, this is a good thing. The government taxes smoking, alcohol, and petrol partly because we think these things have costly side-effects—like pollution or burdening the NHS—that we want to discourage. But most of our taxes do not fall on activities with costly side-effects: they fall on things like working, travelling, and socialising. And because we have such a high tax burden—this year we’ll work for the chancellor for 154 days before we start working for ourselves on Tax Freedom Day, today—we almost certainly have less of those things. With lower taxes we’d be happier, and our

Keynes’s big mistake

Some things are universally accepted as true. Water finds its own level; crumpets are best eaten in winter; and the England football team will not win the World Cup again, ever. On a par with these things, the most accepted part of economics is Keynesianism. Of course, John Maynard Keynes said lots of things about economics in between his many and varied sexual encounters. But, as is the way of the world, one of the things he said turned out to be particularly influential. It is so influential that it has gone around the world. It is repeated and relied upon by Japanese finance ministers, New York Times columnists, Nobel

John McDonnell’s true economic guru: the emperor Nero

John McDonnell, shadow chancellor in the Corbynite splinter-group, has announced that £120 billion is waiting to be reclaimed from tax avoidance, evasion and other schemes. Nero was equally detached from reality. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that in ad 65 a fantasist from Carthage by name of Caesellius Bassus bribed his way into an interview with Nero and told him that on his estate there was hidden a vast quantity of gold, not in coin but in unworked bullion — great columns of it. It had been hidden there, he said, by Dido, the Phoenician queen who had founded Carthage. Nero was thrilled. Triremes filled with soldiers and rowed

Cicero on Labour taxes

Heidi Alexander, Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow health secretary, has emphasised how important it is ‘to weave into [Labour’s] language, our narrative and our political mission a fundamental respect for taxpayers’ money, something that is clearly missing given our current reputation for profligacy’. Cicero would be cheering her on. Cicero’s de officiis (‘On Duties’) was composed in 44 bc, the year in which he was assassinated on Marc Antony’s orders. The work, the second to be printed in the Gutenberg revolution after the Bible, was immensely influential during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In it, he envisaged a community bound by partnership (societas) and trust, whose leaders obeyed the law and had the

The clock that stopped: the victory of nuclear arms and defeat of nuclear power

‘I visited the black marble obelisk which marks the epicentre of the explosion, and I saw the plain domestic wall-clock retrieved intact from the rubble with its bent hands recording the precise time of day when the city was obliterated: 11.02 a.m. I was glad to be alone, because I could not have spoken.’ Published here 20 years ago, that was my memory of Nagasaki, the target on 9 August 1945 of the second and last nuclear weapon ever deployed. The subsequent seven decades of non-use of nuclear arms — deterred by that most chilling of threats, ‘mutually assured destruction’ — is one of the miracles of modern history, given the

Should politicians leave the wealthy alone?

Bashing the rich has become trendy. Last night, the Spectator hosted a debate at the Guildhall School of Drama on whether the rich have contributed their fair share to society, or if we should ramp up wealth taxes. It’s a very emotive topic and each of the speakers made a solid case for and against the motion: politicians should leave the wealthy alone — they already contribute more than their fair share. Proposing the motion, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson described how London is a city ‘shaped by the super rich,’ pointing out the number of places that serve a £20 vodka martini. But Fraser argued that society needs these wealthy people and

Spectator letters: VAT and sugar, Boris Johnson and cricket, whisky and bagpipes

Sugar added tax Sir: Julia Pickles (Letters, 14 June) suggests a sugar tax to combat the obesity epidemic and discourage food manufacturers from adding sugar to everything from bread to baked beans. A more realistic alternative might be to simply adjust the VAT rules: currently, VAT is levied on essentials such as loo paper, toothpaste and washing powder, presumably because they’re considered luxuries. Items such as breakfast cereals, however, are VAT-exempt, even though many are more than 30 per cent sugar and should really be in the confectionery aisles. Levying VAT on products with, say, more than 20 per cent added sugar and removing it from others could form a

How ancient Athens beat tax avoidance

The taxman will soon be ordering those planning dodgy tax avoidance schemes to declare them beforehand and pay the full tax on them up front. Only if HMRC finally decides the scheme is legal will the tax rebate be allowed. This is a very Greek principle, which could help with the problem of bankers’ bonuses. The 4th century bc Athenian tax system was very progressive: only the richest paid any at all. In times of war, those with a certain value of declared property were liable for an emergency tax (eisphora), levied at 1 or 2 per cent. These wealthy Athenians — numbered in the thousands — were grouped into

Fraser Nelson

Danny Alexander on Scottish independence, income tax, Nick Clegg and George Osborne

Danny Alexander doesn’t suntan well, but he looks more freckly than normal when we meet in HM Treasury.  He’s just back from the seaside town of Nairn in the Highlands, where, as the most senior Scot in the Cabinet, he’s been sent to fight in the front line of the Battle for Britain. People were queuing to sign up to the Better Together campaign, he says, and he has high hopes of defeating Alex Salmond on 18 September. It all added up to something rather rare for a Liberal Democrat: the feeling of being on the winning side in an election. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he has been

How the Ancient Greeks did wealth taxes

After 685 tightly argued pages, the ‘superstar’ economist Thomas Piketty unfolds his master-plan for closing the gap between the rich and poor: you take money away from the rich. Novel. Ancient Greeks realised you had to try a little harder. The culture of benefaction was deeply rooted in Greek society, even more so when the Romans made Greece a province in the 2nd century BC and removed their direct power of taxation. The quid pro quo lay in the prospect of eternal honour for the donors. The services which the wealthy provided for the city included paying for baths, gymnasia and food supply. Where harbour facilities and commercial districts needed

Martin Vander Weyer

Fight Thomas Piketty or face a mansion tax

The postman at the door is stooped by his burden like an allegorical statue of Labour Oppressed by Capital. His wearisome, low-waged task is to deliver a copy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century — or perhaps multiple copies all round the town, since this breezeblock of a thesis on the iniquities of accumulated wealth stands second in this week’s bestseller lists, pipped only by the life story of someone called Guy Martin. His core argument — the celebrity French economist Piketty, that is, not Martin, who turns out to be a celebrity motorbike racer and lorry mechanic — is that the return on unfettered capital will always

Any other business: The friends of Putin taking home gold from the Sochi Olympics

Imagine if the BBC’s excitable commentators had been asked to cover the building of Sochi’s facilities, rather than the Winter Olympics themselves. ‘Yeesss!!’ Ed Leigh might have yelled, ‘That’s the 21st construction contract for the big lad from St Petersburg, Arkady Rotenberg. Seven point four billion dollars’ worth, a new Olympic record — more than the entire cost of the 2010 Vancouver Games! How cool is that for the 62-year-old who was Vladimir Putin’s boyhood judo partner? Up next, the $9.4 billion rail-and-highway link between Olympic sites: keep your eye on Russian Railways president Vladimir Yakunin, who used to be the President’s dacha neighbour…’ And so on through a roll

How mansion taxes will make us all poorer

There are few things most of us enjoy more than watching the value of our houses rocket. Every homeowner will have felt the pulse of excitement that comes from a mental calculation of how much has been added to their net worth by the latest bulletin from Rightmove or the Halifax. Yet fast forward two or three years and the same news could make our hearts sink — because by then a mansion tax could well have been introduced, and rising prices will take many middle-class owners over the threshold. The mansion tax bandwagon has been rolling for several years, pushed enthusiastically by business secretary Vince Cable and his Lib