Because these are dark days in a bleak winter, Covid-stricken and Brexit-paralysed, let me introduce you to a couple who will raise your spirits. Frances Connolly and her husband, Patrick, were living in a rented terrace house in Moira, County Down when, on New Year’s Day 2019, they won the EuroMillions jackpot of £114.9m, one of the highest payouts ever. Since then they have engaged in one of the biggest lottery giveaways ever, according to Camelot, the lottery operator.
Frances describes to me what they did: first they drew up a list of more than 50 relations, friends and neighbours; they paid off mortgages, bought homes, secured futures. Then they moved back to Hartlepool where their daughters live and where they’d brought up their children. They bought a large bungalow with 5 acres outside the town – and set about giving away the rest by permanently depositing it in two charities, one for Hartlepool, one for Northern Ireland.
Warm, funny, and deeply engaged with solving other people’s misfortunes, Frances has a natural repugnance for pointless luxury and waste: “I’m never going to be part of the jet set.”
Their first trip was to visit a daughter in New Zealand, but they didn’t travel first class, too shocked by the price. Looking for a house to buy, they were horrified when estate agents bombarded them with castles and stately homes with vast acreages. Patrick now runs three small plastic plants in Teesside, investing in new recycling projects, doing away with single-use plastics and intent on employing as many people as possible.
Their charities have given away hundreds of tablets, laptops and wifi dongles for young carers, schoolchildren and care home residents whose relatives can’t visit. She has a project packaging clothes, pyjamas and toiletries for the destitute, especially refugees and asylum seekers with nothing. Finding small charities struggling and unsustainable, she has pulled together local soup kitchens and food providers, all seeking the same supermarket surpluses, into a consortium working together; she uses the weight of her charity to link others in the north-east of England. She’s hard-headed and business-minded, while delighting in wrapping hundreds of Christmas toys for children. She looks on at politics in indignation. “Brexit, absolute frigging madness! The world is a small village, so how in God’s name could a country this size stand on its own?” Yes, she’s a longtime Guardian reader too.
As she joins the very rich, in her 54 years she has lived through a gigantic rise in the differential between top and average pay. In 1999, the average FTSE 100 chief executive pay of £1.2m was 59 times the average earnings of all full-time workers (£17,803). But latest figures analysed by the High Pay Centre show that by 2019 this differential had risen to 119:1.
One recent egregious example is Charlie Nunn, recently poached from HSBC for the top job at Lloyds, who is in line for a maximum pay package of £5.6m. Lloyds, like many companies during Covid, boasts he is taking a reduced package compared with his predecessor. But what’s a dip in stratospheric pay, when so many have sacrificed so much?
Contemplating extreme riches, this week the wealth tax commission shows what could be done with just a 1% windfall tax on millionaire households: it would raise £260bn. That astonishing sum shows how much wealth is held by so few. With 2 million families facing poverty, it’s not surprising public opinion backs a cap on obscene pay. A Survation poll finds 54% would favour a maximum wage. Nearly 70% would support wage cap limits at either £100,000, £200,000 or £300,000.
The High Pay Centre is calling for employees to be given the facts about pay differentials within their workplace: repeated surveys show how little most people know about pay inequality, with everyone, high- and low-paid, wrongly imagining their income to be nearer the middle than it is.
Frances and Patrick Connolly’s phenomenal win only amounts to some 20 years of an ordinary top chief executive salary. Their luck is heartwarming and newsworthy, while CEO kleptocracy remains an everyday fact of life. Their worldview inhabits another universe to the hermetically sealed social isolation of hyper-earners. I wish Frances would be invited to speak to them about what it means to own so much money and what to do with it: she says she’d leap at the chance. But as she knows, charity is not an answer to inequality. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and George Soros do admirable good, but their philanthropy is no excuse for out-of-control mega-wealth that should be capped, taxed and spent on priorities set by democratic governments.