Colin Montgomery: Tax dodgers could learn from those who made the ultimate sacrifice
The Labour Party's manifesto as it entered the 1983 general election was famously/infamously dubbed 'the longest suicide note in history'. While not one to make light of suicide at all '“ I know from personal experience just how debilitating mental health issues can be '“ forgive me for presenting my rantathon this week as a contender for the most needless suicide note in history.
My current self-destructive urge is an open invite to HMRC to scrutinise my tax affairs. If they find any money worth taxing, they should give me a ring.
Why the needlessly theatrical intro? Well, I’m going to have a pop at tax avoidance (among other attempts at rules-based satire – please go gently on me).
I am someone who could break an abacus if left unattended, such is my ineptitude with numbers. I’ve probably forgotten to accord with some financial bylaw or other over the years and no doubt owe the Government a few pre-decimal groats.
But then again, all might be forgiven, as I don’t have an expensive personal accountant beavering away in the background, shovelling my spare cash into a satchel on a jet bound for the Isle of Man. What’s that? Neither do you? Funny that. Well, we say “funny”, but “bloody infuriating” is more accurate for most of us I suspect.
Yes, as the leaked Paradise Papers reveal how the other half play the loopholes in the tax system to their advantage, it increasingly feels that rules just don’t apply if you reach a certain financial status in life.
And now a commercial break as we award a prize for the first reader to utter the words: “They’re not doing anything illegal”.
Yes, their Byzantine tax plotting may technically not be against “the rules”, just as the self-serving actions of MPs who played the parliamentary expenses system to their advantage weren’t technically in breach of the some code or other. But if you can’t see the damage such behaviour causes to the overall idea of the spirit of the democratic collective that binds us, you’re blind.
The democratic collective is not a 1960s protest band. It is, for me at least, the underlying sense that we all inhabit the same orb, breathe the same air and have a certain responsibility to play fair by others in all we do. Does that stop you being a self-interested ape at times? No, of course not. Naebody’s perfect right?
But, if rules become something to be circumnavigated, diluted or outright avoided and replaced by ruthless self-interest, we might as well give up, arm everyone with a pugil stick and say “may the strongest survive, by fair means or foul”.
A no-holds-barred final hurrah for lunatic libertarian Ayn Rand’s selfish motto of “it’s not a question of who will let me, it’s a question of who will stop me”.
The erosion of a sense of responsibility to the rules we all need to abide by takes other forms: a flagrant disregard for sexual boundaries by those in position of power; a government minister (step forward Ms Patel) whose inability to live by the ministerial code saw her effectively conducting her own private foreign policy with Israeli politicians; a multi-millionaire racing driver leasing a jet back to himself to avoid paying a bit extra tax on his purchase. And that’s just the last few weeks.
Brexit has been talked about as a chance to light a bonfire of regulations. The fact is, a determination to avoid rules – and with that accountability – has been a trend for many, many years now. You could say it started with the financial crash of 2008, stoking populist resentment that found its ultimate expression in the anger of those who voted Brexit and Trump.
Indeed I don’t think you need to be some highly paid political observer to detect more than a hint of revenge in those two momentous events.
All of which may elicit a shrug of the shoulders from many. So, the rich and powerful aren’t always squeaky clean – in other news, outdoor ursine defecation officially acknowledged. But look at it this way, if society’s leaders, lawmakers and loaded ones refuse to play ball, why should ordinary Joes and Jills at the bottom of the ladder give a toss about playing fair any more? Queue-jumping, littering, parking in a disabled space, heck, even a little welfare fraud eh? What does it matter if you can get away with it right? While I wouldn’t condone such bad behaviour for a second, it’s no puerile parlour game to speculate that a culture of self-interest can have some serious unintended consequences.
To think that only last weekend, we were putting individualism to one side to come together and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for others. If only a scintilla of such selflessness could inform the day-to-day attitude of all of us, from the top to the bottom of society, I reckon we’d be all the richer for it.