One of the defining characteristics of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher was an unashamed celebration of self-made success. The Left derided this as a “loads-a-money” fixation on wealth, but they missed the point. Mrs Thatcher shrank the state, because she knew that prosperity could only be created by individuals incentivised to act on their own initiative. She opened up property ownership, because she recognised that a society is healthiest when the masses have a stake in it. The heroes of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain were not just the entrepreneurs, but the millions who took advantage of the freedom to build a better life for their families.
All of this now appears to have been forgotten. In fact, the Tories seem to have lost the ability to talk about wealth at all.
This has been particularly striking in the row over Rishi Sunak’s wife’s tax affairs. Mrs Sunak has felt obliged to pay more tax than she owes, amid accusations, including from Tory MPs, that she was not paying her “fair share”. But there is nothing unfair about people using legal arrangements to minimise the tax they owe. To suggest otherwise is to insist on an arbitrary system in which our money is only held at the pleasure of public opinion.
But the rot goes much deeper than that. Earlier this year, the PM justified his opposition to cutting VAT on fuel on the grounds that it would help the middle classes – a Brownite perspective that implies that no tax cut is morally right unless it is targeted at the poor. Like Labour, the Government is obsessed with the “distributional” impact of its policies, fearful of doing anything that might benefit moderate or high earners.
They also appear to be embarrassed by wealth itself. Mr Sunak is a fine example of self-made success, and his wife’s fortune derives from the company founded by her father. But he has at times been at pains to hide this fact, including a photo opportunity in which he was pictured filling someone else’s car with petrol. Like David Cameron using Ryanair, the Tories apparently feel they cannot be open with the public about money.
This is not just absurd – people are more likely to be annoyed at the dishonesty than angry that some politicians are rich – it is a surrender to the Left’s argument that wealth should be a source of shame. It is not. But not content with raising taxes themselves, the Tories are ceding the intellectual ground on which these battles are fought – ground that Mrs Thatcher had won at such cost.