Hostility to billionaires has become a feature of the U.K.’s election campaign. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, set the battle lines for the December 12 election last week by announcing, “we’re not afraid to take them on.”
The “them” he refereed to were some of the wealthiest and most successful British billionaires: “bad bosses like Mike Ashley,” Corbyn said on October 31 in his first speech of the election campaign.
A day later, Ashley, who founded the retailer Sports Direct, retorted that Corbyn “was a liar and clueless”. The same day, Corbyn said on Twitter that a “fair society” would have no billionaires.
Then, shadow Treasury minister Clive Lewis told the BBC’s Newsnight programme, “billionaires shouldn’t exist.”
And so the battle lines of the general election were drawn between the the richest and those who vilify them.
The Election Battle Lines
On Tuesday, British prime minister Boris Johnson compared Corbyn’s attack on billionaires to Stalin’s persecution of the Kulaks in the 1930s.
“The tragedy of the modern Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is that they detest the profit motive so viscerally,” Johnson wrote in The Telegraph. “They pretend that their hatred is directed only at certain billionaires–and they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks.”
This debate around billionaires is not only becoming heated, but it is also misleading. Most billionaires are not individuals with a billion dollars (or pounds) in their bank accounts. On average 80% of their wealth is tied up in “businesses that the individual is or was actively involved in,” says Andrew Amoils, a wealth analyst at New World Wealth, which produces data on billionaires.
Nor is everyone in it for the money. Over a third of business owners in the U.K. set up their companies to make a difference to society according to a survey by Investec Private Bank.
“With calls from Labour to ‘move on from capitalism’ and change the way companies are owned, it’s easy to forget that every private sector job in the country comes from the hard work of motivated people who create and build businesses”, says Deborah Sayagh, head of Strategic Partnerships at Investec Private Bank.
“They pretend that their hatred is directed only at certain billionaires – and they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks.”
Billionaire In The Middle
In between this political furore British billionaires are staying smut. Most eke out fairly discrete lives and would rather not be drawn into a heated political debate.
But some believe that inaction is as good as surrender. Rainer Zitelmann, author of several books on the wealthy, says the rich are being used by politicians: “They are the scapegoats: It’s easy to blame them for other things that are happening in the economy.”
Instead they should stand up for themselves, he believes. Their argument is a logical one: billionaires create jobs, pay taxes and give money to charity.
Making this argument is easier said than done, however. Few want to go on the record for fear of vilification, though be it more from Twitter users than Stalin.