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The rich will always get it in the neck – Rishi Sunak is the latest victim

Honoré de Balzac’s “Behind every great fortune there is a crime” remains a popular trope more than 150 years after first uttered. Its latest target is Rishi Sunak, the UK’s top finance minister. 

Sunak is the charismatic chancellor of the exchequer in the Boris Johnson government. He is arguably the most popular politician in the country right now because of his big handouts to people and businesses hurt by the Covid-19 pandemic who would otherwise go bankrupt. 

But Sunak has one problem in the eyes of the purveyors of the “Behind every great fortune…” trope. And that is, he is rich,…very rich….

Not only that, Sunak goes about his business with considerable charm, humanity, and grace. He wears his intellect lightly. Even those of a different political persuasion would grudgingly admit to his prowess. It’s no wonder Sunak is touted as a future prime minister. 

But Sunak has one problem in the eyes of the purveyors of the “Behind every great fortune…” trope. And that is, he is rich,…very rich….

Before entering politics, Sunak was a very successful banker and hedge fund manager. But he really hit the jackpot when he married Akshata Murty, the daughter of N.R. Narayana Murthy, the co-founder of Infosys, one of India’s most successful entrepreneurs, and a billionaire. 

So it was only going to be a matter of time before he and his family’s wider fortune got the “behind every fortune…” treatment. 

Lo and behold,  a leading UK newspaper last week accused Sunak of failing to adequately disclose all his wealth in a public register of politicians’ outside interests. The same paper has since accused his wife of avoiding taxes on some of her business interests through an offshore tax haven. 

Maybe he has been caught by a technicality.  Maybe he hasn’t. Behind these accusations, there’s a more important, and worrying, anti-rich theme.

Rich people aren’t transparent, they hide their money from the authorities, and wield too much power – so the story goes. And by extension: Is there any difference between the tax arrangements of the late President Mugabe of Zimbabwe and the Sunaks? Of course, there is, but “behind every great fortune”…treatment, anything is fair game.  

Sunak might be rich, but he has displayed a real sense of public duty in his role as the UK’s top finance minister. And the job is going to get really tough when he needs to claw some Covid-19 money back. Many would argue these efforts go much deeper and done with more sincerity than many of his less wealthy political counterparts. 

His wife might have inherited a vast fortune, but she is the daughter of one of the most successful entrepreneurs in India, who created a world-beating company that employs more than 200,000 people worldwide, and pays millions of dollars in tax. 

She isn’t the daughter of some dodgy politician, nor the scion of an aristocratic family, who have mastered the art of tax avoidance over many generations and created little value in between.  

If Sunak didn’t disclose everything about his family’s fortune to the authorities, this wasn’t out of any disrespect for the British public. If intentional, it was done purely for privacy reasons and not to hide ill-gotten gains, because there aren’t any. 

If Akshata Murty channelled some of her fortune through an offshore location, or avoided paying some taxes, is that such a crime? There is no indication of aggressive practices, and, interestingly, the newspaper which has highlighted the alleged tax avoidance, has been accused itself of tax avoidance in the past.

Yes, the Sunaks are very rich. But they take their responsibilities towards society seriously and contribute considerably to the well-being of the UK and the wider world. 

That’s why Balzac’s famous (infamous) quote isn’t fit for the 21sth century, nor probably for any period of time since he said it. 

 

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