A wealth tax won’t work – except as political pantomime

Marc Sidwell
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LIKE a sudden downpour, Nick Clegg has signalled an end to the summer’s drought of domestic policy proposals with his suggestion for an additional wealth tax. The deputy Prime Minister’s new idea has, rightly, been widely criticised for being both impractical and counterproductive, with even the chancellor George Osborne forced to warn of its potential impact on the UK’s attractiveness to wealth-creators. In the Forum today on page 18, Mark Littlewood, once head of media for the Liberal Democrats, explains the sort of practical message Clegg could have been delivering instead.

As it was, Clegg used his Guardian interview to roll out the usual delusional thinking. A tax that could be “time-limited”. They told us that about the income tax at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and we’re still waiting for our reprieve. A tax that could somehow help hardwire fairness into the system by targeting one small group. A tax that could be part of a long economic effort to restore growth, while taking the form of a short-term raid on private assets.

Wealth taxes are divisive, notoriously hard to assess and disproportionately hurt the asset-rich and income-poor – plenty of whom simply have the good fortune to own property in and around London. But perhaps such analysis is beside the point. Clegg may not have been floating a serious idea so much as throwing a bone to his party ahead of conference season. It’s hard to say which is more depressing, the thought that the deputy Prime Minister might play politics with such significant announcements or that he might believe such an unworkable proposal would rally his party.

As the country shakes off its long summer doze, Clegg’s promise that the Lib Dems are ready to spread their wings signals that we can’t expect to hear anytime soon the urgent answers we need from the government on matters from economic strategy to transport policy. With a Cabinet reshuffle predicted to be imminent and conferences for all three main parties barely a month away, politics is back with a vengeance, which means it may be time for reason to take a holiday.

For the next week and a half, the rest of us can distract ourselves with the return of London 2012. Britain can be proud, not just that the forerunner of the modern Olympics was created at Much Wenlock, but that the modern Paralympics began at Stoke Mandeville hospital.

Dr Ludwig Guttman’s work, celebrated in the recent BBC Two drama The Best of Men, helped rehabilitate World War II veterans in 1948, and today’s global sporting championship is also a giant celebration of achievement in the face of adversity. It was fitting that the opening ceremony also chose to mark Britain’s contribution to scientific knowledge. This is an event that shows humans at their inventive, spirited best. Given the Greek origins of this summer’s competitions, the words of Sophocles seem appropriate: “Shared words, ideas fast as the wind, emotions that build a state, humankind has taught itself these; how to build against winter ice and to keep off the rain; we are ready for anything: being human, whatever our fate, we will find an answer. There’s no running from death, but humans find ways to outpace their cruellest afflictions.”

As our Paralympic athletes, including some of today’s veteran servicemen and women, compete with the best in the world, they also help to remind us of the unconquerable resourcefulness of the human spirit.

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