8 in 10 Brits are concerned that the wealthy don’t contribute their fair share of taxes
18 MAY 2023
75% of people (including 72% of 2019 Tory voters) are concerned that people with net wealth of £10m or more have too much influence on the political system
69% of people are concerned that some people in the UK are this wealthy while others live in poverty, and 65% about unequal opportunities to accumulate wealth
68% of people (including 64% of 2019 Tory voters) think the government should be doing more to tax high net worth individuals (those with £10m or more)
Asked about sources of wealth, people are most positive about entrepreneurs, followed by landlords, and most negative about city traders and old-money heirs
Setting the scene
Wealth inequality is twice as high as income inequality. The richest fifth of the population own 63% of the country’s wealth; the poorest fifth own 0.6%. Men have 40% more wealth than women. White households are four times more likely to have more than £500,000 in wealth than black African households.
Total net household wealth as a share of national income has roughly doubled in the last thirty years. Most increases in wealth over recent decades have been ‘passive’ (driven by increases in the asset values of existing wealth) rather than ‘active’ (due to saving or other activities suggesting the application of talent through hard work). Inheritances play an increasingly important role in determining life chances and outcomes.
Wealth inequality is a barrier to the achievement of all five of the fair necessities. It allows poverty to reach unacceptable levels, undermining fair essentials. It leads to educational and job market inequalities, undermining fair opportunities. It undervalues many forms of work, undermining the social contract and fair rewards. If not properly taxed, it weakens public services, undermining fair exchange. And it leads to egregious inequalities across class, racial, gender, regional and generational divides across every aspect of our society and economy – from democracy and the environment to housing, health and criminal justice – undermining fair treatment.
For all of the debate about economic growth, there isn’t a shortage of wealth in Britain; if anything, there is a surplus. But it is very unevenly distributed.
What do people in Britain think about wealth inequality in the context of fairness?
There is plenty of research to suggest that views are complex and nuanced. People are concerned about the causes and consequences of wealth inequality - as well as income inequality and other forms of inequality that are interdependent, such as racial, gender and regional inequality. But at the same time, many people believe that we live in a meritocratic society, and that success (and therefore wealth) owes more to individual factors, such as hard work, than to structural factors, such as barriers to opportunity. And people see wealth as aspirational, in part because it can provide security for them and their families in an insecure (and unequal) world.
We set out to explore two questions that have received less attention. Firstly, how much do attitudes vary based on the source of the wealth, and in particular whether it was earned through work or acquired in other ways (such as inheritance, or rent)? Secondly, what do people think about fairness in relation to people with net wealth of £10 million or more (high net worth individuals), and what might this mean for policy solutions such as taxes on wealth?
How do different sources of wealth affect attitudes to it?
We asked people for their views about seven different characters, each of which have accumulated £5 million in a different way. For each character, we asked five questions, each with two possible answers (below), and asked respondents to pick the answer they most agreed with in each case (or neither, if they were unsure).
Green bars show the percentage of respondents who agreed with the first statement, red bars the second (grey bars mean unsure). To reduce respondent fatigue, each respondent only answered questions about three of the seven characters, chosen at random.
Accumulating wealth in this way…
The new-money heir
…has inherited £5m from their parents, who had built up a successful business from scratch
The old-money heir
…has inherited £5m from their father, whose family has been wealthy for many generations
…has accumulated £5m by building a large portfolio of rental properties over their lifetime
…has accumulated £5m by building a business from scratch and then selling it
…has accumulated £5m by extracting dividends from a hedge fund that they started up
The finance whizz
…has accumulated £5m by being paid large bonuses every year as a successful city trader
The sports star
…has accumulated £5m by being paid a large salary for 15 years as a footballer
Looking across all five questions, it’s clear that most people think that opportunities to make lots of money aren't evenly spread, and that many have achieved their wealth more through luck than by hard work.
This view holds for all characters with the exception of entrepreneurs, and to some extent landlords, both of whom are viewed more favourably by the public. Views about fairness and positive impact on society are split, while large numbers are unsure about taxation (although the issue of taxing wealth is examined in more detail in a separate question).
Comparing ‘net approval ratings’ for the seven characters, the entrepreneur comes out clearly ahead, scoring high in terms of having earned their wealth fairly (and more through hard work than luck) and their positive impact on society, although many people do not think that everyone has an equal chance to become one. The second most positively viewed character is the landlord, followed by the new-money heir and then the investor. Bringing up the rear are the sports star, the finance whizz and the old-money heir.
The differences between 2019 Conservative and Labour voters are not as large as might be expected. Conservative voters are often broadly in line with the national average.
However, where they do diverge, the differences are sometimes surprising. For example, for several characters, Conservative voters are more, rather than less, likely than the average respondent to believe that accumulating wealth in this way is only possible for some people in society.
Views about high net worth individuals
Most people are concerned that high net worth individuals (defined as people with net wealth of £10m or above) aren't paying enough taxes and have too much influence on politics. On these issues, Conservative voters are in lockstep with the general public. People are also worried about the socio-economic impacts of wealth inequality, in terms of both equal opportunities and equal outcomes.
When asked about the overall acceptability of people accumulating large amounts of wealth, most people place themselves somewhere towards the middle on a scale between two opposing views (red: it’s unacceptable, e.g. because it harms opportunities for others, and green: it’s acceptable, e.g. because it rewards and incentivises hard work).
Two in three respondents (including 64% of 2019 Tory voters) think that the government should being doing more to tax high net worth individuals. This question does not distinguish between taxes on income and taxes on wealth, or between the design of the tax system (rates, allowances etc) and its operation (such as cracking down on tax avoidance).
Perceptions and preferences about inequality
When asked about their perceptions about the shape of society in terms of inequality (without specifying whether this relates to the distribution of income, wealth or anything else), most people believe that we live in an unequal society with many people at or near the bottom.
When asked about their preferences about the shape of society in terms of inequality, most people would prefer the UK to be a society in which most people are in the middle, or near the top, with very few people at the bottom.
Most people think that ordinary people don't get their fair share of nation's wealth. Views about whether the government should redistribute income or raise taxes to spend more on health and social services are more split.
Understanding why people think what they think
We asked a ‘free text’ question asking people to explain their views about taxing high net worth individuals.
This word cloud shows the most frequent words used by respondents who thought taxes on this group should be lower or were already high enough.
This word cloud shows the most frequent words used by respondents who thought taxes on this group should be higher.
We also asked all respondents whether they wanted to record a video to share their views about the issues. We received 9 videos.
The questions were designed in consultation with a range of organisations working on wealth and economic inequality, and with input from polling experts. Many of the questions link to one or more of our five Fair Necessities (essentials, opportunities, rewards, exchange and treatment).
Fieldwork was carried out by Opinium between 26 and 28 April, with a nationally representative sample of 2,053 adults across the UK, weighted to nationally representative criteria and various political criteria. The order of options presented in each question was randomised. Participants were shown an information box about wealth inequality in the UK halfway through the survey.
About the information box
The information box said:
The richest 20% of the UK population own 63% of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 20% own 0.6%. Read more here.
The information box was shown to participants after answering the perceptions and preferences questions about the five types of society and the questions about the seven characters, but before answering the other questions on the economy and on high net worth individuals.