Alan Duncan David Cameron
David Cameron and his shadow cabinet – including Alan Duncan – in 2005Getty

Inheriting a large sum of money is synonymous with being a high achiever for some Tory MPs. During yesterday's debate in parliament over the Panama Papers, Alan Duncan MP warned that if the PM's critics got their way: "We risk seeing a House of Commons which is stuffed full of low achievers, who hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own family and who know absolutely nothing about the outside world."

Prime Minister David Cameron's critics should therefore "snap out of their synthetic indignation" and their "hatred for anyone who has even got a hint of wealth in their life", Duncan added, as his words were greeted by nods and shouts of "hear, hear" on the Tory backbenches.

This was hardly an original intervention by the MP for Rutland and Melton. The brouhaha over the PM's tax arrangements was, for some, yet another example of a deep-seated politics of envy on the Left. Duncan used the phrase "synthetic indignation" yet he might just as easily have deployed the voguish term "virtue signalling". We leftists apparently only get angry for two reasons: we're jealous or we're trying to demonstrate our unassailable ethical superiority over our fellow man.

Yet Duncan's brief intervention yesterday revealed something far more interesting about the mindset of many Conservatives rather than anything about the contemporary Left. The Bullingdon Club attacks on Cameron are, as a rule, rather pathetic; better, I think, to attack the man on his record in government than on his family background. Yet it should be obvious to everyone that the prime minister is not the prime minister solely as a result of hard graft and toil.

Cameron is a descendant of King William IV and received an ultra-prestigious education at Eton. He reportedly landed his first job at the Conservative Party research department after a staffer at Buckingham Palace phoned up to sing his praises. Attacking the PM for his background may betray a spiteful lack of seriousness; yet it seems fair to say that Cameron's ascent to the very top of British politics was the result of more than personal endeavour alone. Cameron had a head start in life compared to the vast majority of Britons.

The corollary of this, which has passed people like Duncan by, is that many would-be high achievers – talented individuals who lack the resources of men like Cameron – are often shut out of politics along with other professions. Around 32% of the 2015 intake of MPs were privately-educated, compared to just 7% of the public as a whole.

It should be obvious to everyone that the prime minister is not the prime minister solely as a result of hard graft and toil.

Duncan can worry 'til the cows come home about a fictitious House of Commons which is "stuffed full of low achievers", yet he raises not a squeak about a House of Commons which is already dominated by the progeny – and at times the low achieving progeny – of super-wealthy parents.

As the government-commissioned social mobility reports remind us with regularity, it is more than just "enterprise" which gets people to the top in Britain. The professions in this country – including politics – are notoriously unmeritocratic. Big business, often extolled as the stomping ground of the "self-made man", is hardly a good deal better. Excluding those who were educated abroad, 41% of British-educated FTSE 350 CEOs and more than half (60%) of those in the Sunday Times Rich List were privately educated. Meanwhile almost half (43%) of FTSE 350 CEOs attended a top Russell Group university.

Thus Duncan is wrong, but wrong in more ways than he perhaps realises. Contrary to the overblown rhetoric about the rise of low achievers, getting tough with tax avoidance is just one way that politicians might actually begin to reconfigure Britain so that the scales are tilted a little more in favour of the genuinely talented and enterprising.

The government's own evidence suggests that education is the most important factor in determining whether a child will grow up to be a poor adult. Those with a low level of educational achievement are up to five times more likely to be living in poverty than those who achieve a good education.

Getting tough with tax avoidance is just one way that politicians might actually begin to reconfigure Britain so that the scales are tilted a little more in favour of the genuinely talented and enterprising.

And of course, education costs money – taxpayers' money. Last year Cameron admitted that the Tories would slash real-terms spending per-school pupil for the next five years. This came on top of a five-year real-terms freeze after the 2010 election. Both cuts were justified by the government under the catch-all umbrella of austerity; yet it isn't a huge stretch to point out that every penny avoided in tax is another penny which might have been spent in British schools – one of the best means we have of promoting social mobility.

HMRC admits that tax evasion costs Britain at least £4.1bn ($5.8bn) a year. It claims that avoidance schemes account for another £3.1bn. Others put both figures far higher: The Tax Justice Network place the so-called "tax gap" at around £120bn. Whichever figure is the true one, it seems fair to say that more than a trifling sum is being lost by the exchequer to illegal tax evasion and aggressive (but technically legal) tax avoidance. This is money which might conceivably have been spent helping those who really should be high achievers but who remain stuck at the bottom of the pile.

Thus if Duncan is serious about making the top of British society a more hospitable place for enterprising high achievers, he ought to welcome any attempt to crack down on those who would weasel out of paying their fair share. They are the worthy recipients of our indignation (synthetic or otherwise).


James Bloodworth is the author of The Myth of Meritocracy