Why does tax evasion still surprise us?

When a BBC notification flashed up on my phone, all I could really do was laugh: her Majesty is avoiding tax. Already that’s a curious way to present a story that was uncovered by nearly a hundred news sources detailing the contents of a 13.4m file leak, that points fingers at prominent officials around the world including Trump’s commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, Lord Ashcroft and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, a couple of cast members of Mrs Brown’s Boys.

But no – Elizabeth is impugned, nothing is sacred anymore, because suddenly the moral character of the Royal Family is called into question for the first time in history.

This, I think, is the central problem of the issue: the banality of the revelations. There is yet to be something that appears in there that everybody didn’t sort of know already. Headline: Rich people don’t like paying tax.

Headline: Lord Aschcroft may not be the bastion of ethics we’d all held him to be.

Headline: The Queen has lots of money and doesn’t much like losing it. The immediate danger of the unveiling of the blindingly obvious combined with a characteristically tepid government response is the potential normalization of tax avoidance and evasion. With every new set of leaks people will do nothing more than nod sagely, turn to the person sitting next to them and knowingly remark ‘Twas ever thus’ (I’m assured that that is how people talk).

Instead of anger or moral outrage directed at a system permitted by poor oversight and inaction, we are offered a set of public officials to either sneer at or immediately forgive. The story has become wrapped up in the notion that maybe, perhaps, Jeremy Corbyn might have suggested that the Queen should apologise.

While this is, without a doubt, a treasonous notion, warranting a short stay in the tower before a long walk to the gallows, it is a little disproportionate that some on the right have designated this the first step of a revolution, conjuring Corbyn as a demented tax tsar, wandering around London with a machete, beheading corgis as he goes.

I have little interest in the financial dealings of our Monarch. I’m slightly angrier at disproportionate grandiosity of her state provided housing. I have little interest in Lord Ashcroft, who presumably will circumnavigate this story in his customary manner: writing a piece that suggests that the editorial body of the Guardian are regularly fellated by farmyard animals. I know of no-one who has any interest at all in Mrs Brown’s Boys or, indeed, the moral character of its utterly irrelevant actors.

Let’s talk about what we’re talking about, and ensure the government, this time, cannot be impotent.  The conclusion of ignoring these deep structural problems is the persistence and conciliation of a system that we already have: that tax is an opt-out phenomenon and indeed, that tax is essentially levied on people’s willingness to contribute to their own country.

The punitive measures are therefore placed on the compliant rich and the less well off. The whole tax system is discredited if this is allowed to continue. This should be priority one for any government, and any party.

Theresa May should not feel dissuaded by any ideological laissez-faire hangovers that still ghoulishly cling to her party.  To compel people to pay the tax you’ve asked for is a staggeringly reasonable request, whatever the colour of your rosette.


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Ed Whitbread

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August 2022
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