Spiked, 31st July 2012
First, morally righteous tax campaigners came for the big corporations, like Vodafone and Topshop. Then they came for the beloved comedian Jimmy Carr. And finally they have come for ordinary people paying their plumbers in cash.
UK Conservative Treasury minister David Gauke last week condemned people paying tradesmen for jobs with cash as ‘morally wrong’. According to Gauke, when people pay cash-in-hand, often for a lower price, they don’t pay VAT while the tradesman in question might be dodging income tax, too. This is, of course, often true. It’s pretty common to pay a builder or plumber with a wad of twenties, and it is generally accepted as normal behaviour. The Treasury loses out a bit, but who wants to pay more tax?
The minister’s comments were met with much ridicule and rebuff. Even his boss David Cameron has admitted to paying cash-in-hand. How, though, is it possible for such an everyday form of behaviour, which pretty much everyone does, to be branded as ‘morally wrong’? How has tax payment even become a moral issue?
Since the onset of the ‘age of austerity’ and attempts to scale back public spending, it has become the focus of politics to scrutinise the tax arrangements of everyone and everything – and those attempting to give a little (or a lot) less to the clasp of the modern-day Zacchaeus are condemned as awful, greedy and lacking in morals. This focus on tax, originating with the publicity stunts of nominally left-wing groups that hate big bad corporations, has now become a mainstream political topic and turned tax into an issue of morality.
The anti-austerity group UK Uncut was among the first to start this tax obsession, by protesting against what it calls Vodafone’s ‘shameless’ tax set-up. Guardian commentators soon chimed in, asking about the ‘justice’ of it certain tax set-ups, and questioning if they undermined ‘the moral basis of the system’. According to UK Uncut, rich people trying to ‘put as little money as possible into the public purse are clearly acting immorally’.
Since then, a whole host of other immoral tax dodgers have been identified. Billionaire retailer Philip Green has been targeted, with his Topshop stores occupied by UK Uncut. Boots, the BBC and Tesco have all come under attack, too. However, with the outing of comedian Jimmy Carr for his tax arrangements, there has been a clear shift towards scrutinising individuals. Trying to pay less tax, either as a company or individual, has now become a sin, a morally outrageous act, and everyone must be checked to determine which side of the moral dividing line they fall on. This new attitude could be seen in blogger Laurie Penny’s seemingly out-of-the-blue and irrelevant challenge to the historian David Starkey at an unrelated debate at the recent Festival of Education, when she asked how much tax he had paid. The government also now plans to ‘name and shame’ individuals who use tax-avoidance schemes.
What is clear is that how much tax people give up to this fiscal Leviathan is a moral issue for which all must face scrutiny. No longer is tax deemed a necessary but annoying duty, resented and mostly paid begrudgingly. Rather it has become a litmus test of someone’s moral worth. It is not the taxman that is hated, but those trying to escape his tentacles.
From this moralising about every rich or famous person’s personal finances, it is not hard for a minister to turn the focus on to the ‘ordinary people’ in whose interests the moralistic tax campaigners claim to be campaigning. If tax avoidance is made morally repugnant for the high-flying rich, so too will it be for the plumber, builder or painter who would rather not pay tax on everything he or she earns.
The crusade to turn tax into a modern moral issue has not turned out to be the great twenty-first-century cause of the people, clawing back money from the evil robber-baron capitalists of the high street. Rather, by creating a moralistic discourse around tax and making it the norm for public scrutiny of everyone’s tax – quite literally in the case of a serious proposal by one Guardian columnist – it has resulted in an emboldened HM and Revenue Customs. Viewing tax through a moralistic lens has allowed the taxman to try to grab all he can from everyone, not just the corporations and rich.