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New Labour, always anxious not to offend potential donors or supporters, has avoided the question. But last Wednesday it was, at last, broached - in a debate in the House of Lords. It was put forward by Lord Joel Joffe, a New Labour peer with an unusual background of altruism: he was a left-wing lawyer in South Africa, became Nelson Mandela's attorney before he was sentenced to prison in , and then left for Britain, where he made a fortune in insurance, and later became chairman of Oxfam. Joffe's speech to the Lords dared to contradict the illusion of the British that they are exceptionally generous.
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He pointed out that, over 10 years, charitable donations in Britain had actually fallen, as a percentage of GDP - while personal wealth had more than doubled. And the rich were meaner, in proportion to their incomes, than the rest: "The poor, who cannot really afford it, are considerably more generous than the well off, who can.
He was not afraid to mention names. Of the 10 richest billionaires in Britain, he pointed out, only two - Lord David Sainsbury and Hans Rausing, the Swedish Tetrapak exile, featured in the list of the top donors; while famous billionaires such as Sir Richard Branson, Philip Green and Bernie Ecclestone had given no evidence of charity.
Joffe contrasted the behaviour of Americans, whose charitable giving has gone up by 15 per cent of GDP in those 10 years; 32 per cent of American employees now deduct donations from their payroll, compared to only 2 per cent in Britain. And many of the very rich are spectacularly generous.
There's no doubt, as Joffe explains, that the American culture of giving is quite different, and more systematic, than the British. Both the Jewish tradition of competitive giving, and the Puritan Protestant ethic, have pressed the very rich to endow foundations and charities. Americans are more worried than Europeans about leaving large sums to their children, lest they become decadent layabouts.
And several American billionaires have argued for higher death duties to prevent future generations from becoming too rich. It is true that there are many exhibitionist billionaires like Donald Trump, who enjoy flaunting their wealth. As one of his rivals explained: "Warren must have discovered that he can take it with him.
But most of the richest Americans have decided that their posthumous fame will depend on foundations and charities: like the first John D Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, who pronounced: "He who dies rich dies disgraced. So why are the British so much less generous?
Partly, I believe, because of the long tradition of aristocrats protecting estates, with all their artistic treasures, intact for their heirs. It is a tradition which has undoubtedly contributed to Britain's cultural heritage and the splendour of the countryside. But it has too easily been used as an excuse for a preoccupation with the family - as opposed to the rest of the population - both by the old rich who still have plenty of money to spare, and by the new rich who can use tradition to justify their own glorification without accepting the responsibilities that old estates carry with them.
But the chief explanation for the meanness of the rich in Britain must lie in the current political atmosphere, which has encouraged an unprecedented admiration for wealth, with much less countervailing criticism - whether from Christians, or socialists or representatives of the poor.
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As Lord Phillips of Sudbury, the lawyer for charities, said in Wednesday's debate: "If one was brought up on the notions of faith, hope and charity, today one would have to talk about scepticism, angst and greed. The "rich lists" celebrate the extravagance of billionaires by describing their yachts, palaces and conspicuous consumption without reference to charities. The tabloids equate fame with riches, without asking about the common good. And the Labour Government, in its anxiety to please the rich, has refused to make any criticism of mean billionaires or the new army of "fat cats" and million-a-year men who are notably reluctant to share their new wealth.
The Prime Minister may occasionally dispense honours to do-gooders, but there is only one kind of generosity that can guarantee knighthoods or peerages: generosity to the Labour Party. Gordon Brown, it is true, has done something to encourage more giving; both by changing the tax laws to benefit donors to charity which are now almost as lenient as in America , and by promoting the Giving Campaign of which Lord Joffe is chairman.
But the Chancellor, like his colleagues, is reluctant to suggest that the rich are not splendid, and he continues to provide the huge tax loophole for rich foreign exiles - including Greek shipowners, Russian oligarchs and some Eurotrash - which allows them to pay no taxes at all.
And all the time Tony Blair is determined to avoid any mention of the growing inequality within Britain, or the ruthlessness of global capitalism, which has left the new poor, of immigrants, virtually excluded from the political system. Thirty years ago the Tory Ted Heath could talk about the "unacceptable face of capitalism"; today New Labour finds that all the faces of capitalism are acceptable. The most unattractive face is the eagerness of company directors to enrich themselves at the expense of shareholders, but Labour has retained its benevolent attitude to fat cats in industry despite the public's growing revulsion.
Even Patricia Hewitt at the Department of Trade and Industry, who has shown some concern about corporate greed, last week amazed conservative industrialists by defending directors of MG Rover who had trousered huge sums while the company was sinking. But it cannot be left to a few public-spirited peers to point out the meanness of the rich, and to plead for more generous attitudes.
The rich will not feel much need to change without effective political pressure and leadership; in a country as centralised as Britain the decisive influence must come from the top. It remains a supreme irony that a New Labour prime minister, pledged to put right the unfairness and greed of the Tories, should prove even more reluctant to criticise the rich.
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