Jane Bradley: Wealth is relative - let's get giving

If we all rely on those who are better off than us to give to charity, the world will be a poorer place, says Jane Bradley

Not giving to good causes because you think the wealthier should pay more is not going to help anyone. Picture: Greg Macvean
Not giving to good causes because you think the wealthier should pay more is not going to help anyone. Picture: Greg Macvean

Earlier this week, I received a letter from a reader in response to a story I had written about the dreadful conditions in which refugees are living in camps on the Greek island of Chios.

My piece included a link to a website where readers could donate to support the Scottish volunteers working tirelessly to make the awful situation over there just slightly less awful.

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In the letter, the reader – a Scot now living abroad – told me that he had personally been asked to donate to aid work on Chios some time ago through a charitable organisation he was already involved in, but had refused.

Why? Not because he was against giving aid to refugees, but because he believed that there were people living on Chios who were, he claimed, far better off than himself, who should fund the effort.

Those people, he said, were Greek shipping magnates, many of whom apparently have homes on the island – the second largest in Greece.

“These houses are very large and have cost a lot of euros,” he wrote. “These shipping owners could pay off the Greek national debt and would never miss the money. Why can they not donate to the plight of the refugees?”

He has a very valid point. They probably could. Or should. Perhaps, indeed, many of these wealthy Greek businessmen and women do donate at least a proportion of their income to charity – or perhaps they don’t. We cannot tell.

The fact is that there will always be other people who can afford charity more easily than we can – but that does not mean that we should devolve responsibility to those who are above us on the disposable income food chain.

Some people earn more, some earn less. For those earning less, life is not as easy, or in some respects as pleasant, but that is just how it is.

Looking at it from the point of view of an ordinary person with an average income, it is easy to argue that the super-wealthy should be doing more. But what we have to remember is that, to some people, we as western Europeans are the super-wealthy. The vast majority of you reading this have a roof over your head, food on the table and at least a minimum amount of luxuries.

In some places not too far from here, even some countries in Europe, in the European Union, the average wage is around five times less than our £26,500 here in Britain. Elsewhere, it is far less.

Wealthy or not, some people – a lot of people – donate what they can. Others do not.

Of course, we could all do more. In reality, we do not actually, vitally, need a lot of things we have: new clothes; TV streaming subscriptions; that morning cappuccino on the way into work.

One option is to buy nothing except that which is absolutely necessary - donating everything we have to charity until we are living off only the bare minimum.

This is what many people appeared to believe should happen last week when the world turned on Prime Minister Theresa May for wearing an expensive pair of breeks for a photoshoot. Her Amanda Wakeley leather trousers, selected for an “at home” session with a Sunday newspaper, were discovered to be worth £995, prompting criticism from former education secretary Nicky Morgan who said: “My barometer is always, ‘How am I going to explain this in Loughborough market?’.”

But everyday sexism aside – who knows, or has ever cared to ask, how much former prime minister David Cameron’s well-cut suits cost – is it not reasonable to assume that May, or indeed, Morgan, should spend more on clothes than the average person?

Perhaps May took heed from the lessons learned by Michael Foot 35 years ago after he was lambasted for his scruffy appearance when he turned up at a Remembrance Day service in a down-with-the-kidz donkey jacket. You can’t win, if you are a politician, it seems.

It is well publicised that those running the country earn more than the average wage. An MP is paid £74,962. The Prime Minister gets around £150,000 – though compared to the equivalent wage of the average chief executive, this is fairly modest.

For, if she is not spending the extra money on clothes, something that can easily be seen and judged by her constituents, it is fair to assume that the cash will be spent elsewhere – just where nobody sees it.

Would it be preferable that May spends it on a pricey TV for her living room, or a top-of-the-range iPad than on a garment which she is spotted wearing in a national newspaper?

While we would all perhaps prefer to earn the same wage as May (but, in my case at least, without taking on any of the weighty responsibility which goes with her role) it appears to be the public display of her comparative wealth which is the problem.

Ditto the Greek shipping magnates who so angered my reader with their large houses and overt displays of wealth.

The only proper solution to these gaps in wealth would be a Communist society – an ideology which has not proved itself to be particularly successful anywhere in the world, from eastern Europe to China – sharing the wealth equally.

To many people, especially those who are currently surviving on the minimum or living wage, perhaps that would be an attractive prospect.

But without going down this slippery slope, we cannot – and should not – as residents of a free country, force anyone to donate what money they have to a good cause, or insist they use it in a certain way, no matter how much we would like to.

Instead, whether you are a Greek shipping magnate or someone on a more modest income, why not dig deep and give a little bit extra to charity this Christmas. There are plenty of causes which need our help.