When London’s Saracens beat Leinster in the European rugby final in Newcastle last May, the club, and its sugar daddy owner, Nigel Wray, could not have imagined that win might be a high-water mark.
Wray’s wealth built a rugby super-power by ignoring salary-cap regulations. That golden goose was stuffed yesterday when the club was fined £5m. That ruling, which will be appealed, will have profound implications for Saracens, but, far more importantly, it is another indication that those determined to confront super-wealth, and how it gathers the world unto itself, are gaining in momentum.
That deepening unease was expressed in a different key yesterday, when, in the High Court, Mr Justice Michael Twomey was scathing of lawyers who soak millions in public funds by refusing to settle garda compensation claims. He pointed out that there was a zero settlement rate in garda claims, compared to a 90% rate in other claims. This seems an easy fix, especially as it offers Government a chance to show it is on the side of society, rather than a feather-bedding profession.
However, lawyers need not panic, because the gravy train may not run out of steam just yet.
Britain’s billionaires, like Wray, may not have panicked, but they are on high alert.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has promised that Labour would, if elected, ban billionaires. Britain has more than 150 — 0.0002% of the population, fewer even than the cohort who voted to put Boris Johnson in Downing Street — who control £525bn.
Corbyn argues that, with 14m people in relative poverty, each billionaire represents a failure of policy.
Those figures push these issues well beyond the old vernacular and begrudgery of the 1970s class wars. US president Donald Trump’s die-in-a ditch efforts to keep his tax returns beyond scrutiny is another subplot in this sleazy drama.
One of the consequences of his stonewalling is a tide of whispers hinting that Hilary Clinton is considering another White House run. That would be disastrous, as one of the reasons she lost was her affinity with Wall Street and how she is so obviously star-struck by great wealth.
However, a favourite to oppose Trump next year is Elizabeth Warren. Along with the EU’s Margrethe Vestager, she seems to have a real appetite to break this spiral. She called for a doubling of her proposed billionaire wealth tax and wants to increase that levy from 3% to 6% on wealth over 10 figures.
Unfazed by criticism, she continues to strengthen her position. It seems significant that a transformative predecessor, F. D. Roosevelt, was energised by those very criticisms and was swept to power by an electorate affronted by gross inequities. Today, popular left and right press for such a policy with such force that the centre might wake up and recognise how the wind has shifted and replicate tax policies that enriched America between the 1930s and the 1980s.
These issues are pertinent here. A survey found that Ireland has the fifth-highest number of ultra-wealthy individuals per capita in the world, so even a modest, Warren-scale wealth tax could be transformative.
Which begs the unavoidable question: What are we, and our Government, afraid of?