I wrote about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's astonishing $990million donation last week and provoked a variety of responses but no reports of any equivalent generosity in Britain. My readers know that only a small minority of the rich is charitable. They deserve a standing ovation. However, even I was shocked to learn that research by Coutts Bank suggests that only 10% of those who sell their businesses engage in philanthropy. This would have been unthinkable in the nineteenth century.
I have no wish to return to all the exploitation and poverty experienced by so many in the 1800's. The Victorians did, however, have something we have lost. There was a sense of enterprise and confidence amongst the most energetic and a deeply ingrained sense of obligation between and within all classes. Many more of the rich than today contributed to the public good by funding universities, libraries, hospitals, parks, museums, theatres and concert halls. The middle class also contributed. Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham were amongst the wealthiest cities in Europe because entrepreneurs understood the link between vital communities and healthy markets and the role that their fortunes and philanthropy could play in developing both. The great Victorian merchants provided leadership that is now conspicuously absent and they did so at a time when local government was so much stronger than it is today.
Commitment to family, neighbours and community was the priority for Victorians of all classes. Working class philanthropy was significant. Ironically, despite trumpeting Victorian values and urging the wealthy to be more charitable when she reduced top rate tax, Margaret Thatcher emasculated local government and thereby undermined local commitment. The champion of private enterprise and small government became the great centralizer.
Many factors have contributed to the decline of charitable giving by the rich in Britain, religion being one. Some have suggested that Zuckerberg is generous because he is Jewish to which I would add that he is a Jewish American. Local commitment is big in the USA and that is why Zuckerberg gave to his local Community Foundation.
In addition to the decline of religion and local government, the rise of big government, the welfare state and high taxation were the most significant factors influencing the rich and persuaded them that as the state provided, they need not bother. However, top rate tax has been halved in the last thirty years, public spending is in decline and inequality and poverty have returned. There is no excuse for the rich not to give and many of us might find life more fulfilling if we were to follow the example of our Victorian forbears. Instead, many say they feel disengaged and the young in particular do not see the point of voting.
Another worrying sign of disengagement is the failure of some of the rich to pay their fair share of tax. Moreover, as my critics point out, whilst Mr Zuckerberg is personally generous, Facebook is not paying enough corporate tax. Corporate tax avoidance is a disgrace. However, the real scandal is the failure of our government to act and reach agreement with other countries to ensure that international corporations pay their share. Britain is estimated to have a shortfall of more than £30 billion in unpaid tax, equivalent to the defence budget or the cost of local government.
We are suffering from a lack of leadership, something the Victorians had in spades. By failing to give significantly, the new rich are failing to set an example and inspire those who will follow them. Government makes noises about encouraging more philanthropy but most politicians follow focus groups rather offer leadership. A really clever politician would understand that the times demand extraordinary leadership that will re-engage the disenchanted, particularly the middle classes. David Cameron's vision of a Big Society was far too vague. We need a vision of what this country could be that is believable and that chimes with the generous instincts of most British people. Where is that leader? And who will be clever enough to become Britain's first "Zuckerberg"?
John Nickson is the author of GIVING IS GOOD FOR YOU: WHY BRITAIN SHOULD BE BOTHERED AND GIVE MORE. He is giving his royalties to charities.