As Dominic Lawson pointed out in the Sunday Times, David Cameron was foolish to ever condemn the tax affairs of others practising avoidance (which is legal and commonplace.) When in 2012 he attacked Jimmy Carr for “immoral” tax avoidance he left himself open to charges of hypocrisy. Cameron realised this, which is why almost unnoticed he later reversed his position and effectively apologised to Carr.
Now the latest iteration of the great tax row thunders on down the track to its apparently inevitable destination, the compulsory publication of the tax returns of senior politicians and MPs. Then it will be advisers; then senior civil servants; then all civil servants; then council leaders; then all councillors; then all working for any arm of government or a quango; then investment bankers – yeah, let’s have a nosey; and then entrepreneurs; and lawyers; and footballers; and then anyone deemed remotely rich; and eventually everyone in the land.
Yet publishing tax returns is a terrible idea for the simple reason that it is a quite basic intrusion of privacy. Know someone’s tax bill and you can work out their salary. Why’s that your or my business? It isn’t. On taxation, as on much else, citizens have a simple duty to obey the law. They do not have a duty to prove, other than to the tax authorities if asked, and certainly not to the court of public opinion or to angry newspapers, that they have obeyed the law. Begin this process and soon it will be said that anyone objecting on a practical or philosophical basis must have something terrible to hide, when all they want is to be left alone to obey the law and get on with life unimpeded by a pious mob wielding pitchforks.
Only one thing can stop this move to full transparency, and strangely enough it is the British media. With his unerring instinct for unintentionally rescuing his opponents, Jeremy Corbyn on the Marr programme extended his call for the publication of tax returns to journalists. When he did this he instantly shifted the terms of the debate away from politicians and towards media owners and individual journalists, who are about as popular with the public as politicians. You don’t need to be a mindreader to work out the journalistic thought process that results, particularly in the upper echelons of certain news organisations. Hold on a minute, we only meant politicians should do this, not us for heaven’s sake. What we earn is our business. This is serious. This is… this is… an absolute outrage.
Watch now as the British media goes rather suddenly off the idea of total transparency on tax and salaries. Expect to read editorials in some newspapers declaring that enough is enough and Cameron has effectively drawn a line under this dreadful business, and that Jeremy Corbyn is a silly man. Meanwhile, what’s that over there? Look… squirrel!