Rishi Sunak: citizen of nowhere
The row over his family finances reveals how distant our political class is from ordinary people.
‘How much is a pint of milk?’ This gotcha question for politicians always falls flat – and not just because no one actually buys single pints of milk nowadays. The big reveal – that well-paid but busy people find someone else to queue up at the local Tesco Metro for them – just isn’t that surprising. So last month, when a handful of journalists got overexcited about chancellor Rishi Sunak’s apparent difficulty in using a contactless card-reader to pay for petrol in a post-budget publicity stunt, the rest of us could barely muster a shrug.
Since the budget, news of the Sunak family finances has kept on coming. We now know that the chancellor’s wife, Akshata Murty, is the daughter of an Indian tech billionaire. Her own stake in her father’s company, Infosys, generates millions of pounds each year – making Murty richer than the queen, apparently. We also learned recently that she has ‘non-dom’ status, meaning she has not paid UK tax on income generated abroad. Questions have also been raised about the money Rishi holds in a ‘blind trust’, which is believed to be linked to his time as a hedge-fund manager. None of this is illegal and, it seems, none of it was undeclared.
Prior to these revelations, we already knew the Sunaks were fabulously wealthy. Barely a week goes by without a journalist pointing out the price of Rishi’s trainers or the specific brand (and cost) of his favourite hoodie. Most people don’t really have an issue with the Sunaks’ wealth. Many of us think ‘good luck to them’. If I had a fortune I would also treat myself to an expensive pair of trainers – as well as a spare house or two.
Nor is it a great revelation that fantastically wealthy people arrange their finances to minimise tax payments, whether it’s using offshore tax havens, having non-dom status or setting themselves up as limited companies. Only Guardian hacks seem to be surprised by this. The rest of us generally shrug it off.
What does rankle, however, is when rich people don’t afford the rest of us the same disinterest – when they not only tell us how to live our lives, but also seem hell bent on making us poorer. We have become all too familiar with the Hollywood eco-luvvies who take private jets to environmental conferences while telling us to turn down the thermostat. We’ve grown used to politicians enacting austerity while living it up on expenses. And now we have the wealthy Sunaks arranging their finances to minimise tax while, as chancellor, Rishi increases the tax burden on the rest of us.
What’s more, Rishi has responded poorly to legitimate questions about the various revelations. Of course it is not anti-feminist to ask questions of the chancellor’s wife – a billionaire non-dom resident of Downing Street and spouse of a cabinet minister is not beyond reproach, whatever his or her sex. Sunak has also launched an inquiry to find out who leaked the details about his wife’s non-dom status – as if her privacy were the real issue at stake here.
Beyond all this, there is another reason the Sunaks’ financial arrangements matter. They reveal that, despite the vote for Brexit signalling the importance of national sovereignty, we are still governed by an elite that eschews any attachment to the nation. Members of Britain’s political class have far more in common with wealthy, powerful individuals – whether from California, New York or London – than they do with their own constituents.
What has been most galling from the revelations of the past week is less Akshata Murty’s non-dom status than the fact that the couple kept US green cards, granting them the status of permanent residents in the US. Green-card holders are expected to make a legal commitment to make the US a ‘permanent home’. Rishi held a green card until October 2021, for more than a year into his role in the second-most powerful position in the UK government.
Sunak’s green card shows that his personal arrangements were not simply a financial matter. He is alleged to have either taken a reduced income or paid additional tax in the US in order to keep his residence status. This is not about money, then; far more fundamentally it is a matter of where he calls home. For Sunak, home doesn’t seem to be his North Yorkshire constituency, nor even the UK, but California. Once out of office, he is rumoured to want to live in Santa Monica and work in Silicon Valley, not settle down in Yorkshire. The Sunaks, it seems, are footloose global citizens with the wealth and status that makes life on the world stage possible.
The chancellor is not the only one, of course. Health secretary Sajid Javid has declared that he was registered as a non-dom while working as an international banker. And there are plenty of Labour MPs who prefer life among the Euro elite than with their British neighbours. But voters deserve MPs who have a stake if not in the local constituency they claim to represent, then, at the very least, in their country.
As chancellor, Sunak has failed to get to grips with the low productivity, low investment and low wages that plague the UK economy. He has tinkered with taxes and offered rebates with one hand and loans with another, with austerity and the pursuit of environmental targets as his guiding principles. In a couple of decades, the Sunaks will be safely ensconced in their Santa Monica home while us Brits are left paying the price.
The Sunaks’ financial affairs matter – not because they are rich, but because they reveal how, six years on from the Brexit vote, our political class has not changed. As citizens of nowhere, our politicians seem to see the British people as merely bit-part players in their careers, as obstacles to get around on their way to the international departure lounge.
Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and the director of Cieo.
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