IN ACCORDANCE with the ever reliable mote-and-beam
principle, it is almost always unwise to tell other people how to
spend their money.
But, by suggesting that rich people should give more
of their "colossal wealth" to charity, the Mayor of London, Boris
Johnson, recently offered welcome advice at a time when the gap
between the lifestyles of those on the rich list and those (many
more) reliant on unemployment benefit and food banks is widening at
a worrying rate.
Against the background of what the Office of National
Statistics has estimated as a ten-per-cent rise in house prices in
London over the past year, our indigenous and imported millionaires
are reportedly finding it difficult to buy a house in that always
tricky £30-50 million bracket. As a result, everyone from internet
entrepreneurs to hedge-fund managers is finding it a struggle to
get on the super-prime property ladder.
Their hardship, however, compares with that of the
tens of thousands of council tenants who face eviction after
falling into rent arrears after the introduction of the so-called
"bedroom tax" earlier this year. Those tenants might wonder how
many rooms are left "under-occupied" in a multi-million-pound pile
crammed with home cinemas, en-suites galore, and basement swimming
pools. But such reflection will get them nowhere - as well they
So Mr Johnson's intervention is not only timely, but
far likelier to get people thinking honestly about such massive
of course, that inequality per se is always to be derided. After
all, you can have equality and equality of opportunity - but not
both. Or, to put it another way, there will always be someone with
a bigger house than yours.
And yet there is clearly something not quite right
about a system that allows a number of individuals to satisfy their
self-indulgence in ways which princes and potentates of old could
only have dreamt of, while others are forced to choose between
heating their modest homes, or eating.
As the Mayor suggested, the trend in the capital and
elsewhere is now to kit out a home with every mod con imaginable,
and to live in total isolation from the daily realities of life as
experienced by the majority of our fellow citizens.
An equitable taxation system aside, compulsion is
arguably not the way to iron out these growing disparities. You may
wish that the über-rich would rein in their expectations, but
forcing them to do so would generate unwelcome consequences
further down the line.
In a roster of names stretching from Benjamin
Franklin to Bill Gates, the United States has a long tradition of
civic philanthropy that, the Mayor says, British moneybags have
been unwilling to embrace for fear of seeming ostentatious.
"Absolutely ridiculous," the Mayor says; they should give more to
charitable causes rather than satisfying "their lust for buying
great schlosses in the Home Counties".
As he predicted, he was setting himself up for
criticism from all quarters: from those who give generously (but
anonymously) already; from those who see private philanthropy as an
excuse for government to shed its responsibilities; and, indeed,
from those who helpfully pointed out that Mr Johnson's own house
(or one of them) is itself valued at £2.3 million.
But, as a general prod in the backs of the rich and
privileged, his suggestion had an honest and heartfelt ring.
Whether those of us with a mite more in the bank than we need will
heed his advice is another story.
Trevor Barnes reports for the Sunday programme
and other BBC Religion and Ethics broadcasts.