“Tax returns” and fearing for democracy

The fuss over tax returns makes me despair for democracy, and politicians publishing them is actually dangerous.

Of course, the reason politicians are often hypocritical is that so are the voters. We are hearing frankly ludicrous demands for six years’ worth of tax returns made by people who themselves would never dream of publishing theirs – indeed, often by anonymous trolls on Twitter!

The real problem with our democracy is that it is increasingly a closed shop – people get a job in a constituency office, become a Councillor, and move “up” from there. We end up with Ministers who have never run a business, never managed a charity, never worked in the public sector, never in fact had to manage a household budget on anything like the average salary.

What we need in our legislatures and governments are people who have created jobs, promoted charities, worked at the coal face, succeeded in academia, seen the public sector first hand and so on – professional people, who can provide valuable experience and knowledge to the policy-making process. Already, when seeking public office, they have to deal with risking careers, restricting family time and dealing with public ire with no guarantee of electoral success. Now, on top of that, we want them to reveal details of their private lives which none of the rest of us would even dream of revealing even to close friends and family? That is going to improve the quality of public debate, is it?

There is of course the issue here of public ignorance about taxation and public finance. Basics, like the difference between “tax avoidance” (which most of those agitating about it actually do themselves!) and “tax evasion” are missed. Moreover, the very point of an “offshore” investment is it does not appear on a UK tax return! Worse than that, however, is that a tax return actually tells us nothing about a person’s real interests. We learn nothing about what industries they may invest in, what property they may own, and even what charities they may support – all of which is potentially relevant to decision making as public office holders. That is why we have registers of interests!

Add to this the modern social media world where sanctimonious outrage is King and anyone engaging in the actual complexities of managing public finances, reforming a health system or assessing social housing stock is instantly dismissed. It is of course a lot easier and less time consuming to tweet #CameronResign to feel good about yourself, than actually to engage in the complexities of the issues and to influence real change in the public interest.

The only issue here is whether people making decisions in the public interest are being up front and honest. We can assess that on the public evidence – and not on private and irrelevant tax returns, which are already assessed by the tax authorities.

We have now spent days discussing tax returns – both a practical and political irrelevance – in a way which can only damage the chances of new blood entering the political system. Meanwhile decisions on Health, Housing and everything else that actually affects us have been made completely without scrutiny. What kind of farcical democracy are we creating for ourselves?

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3 thoughts on ““Tax returns” and fearing for democracy

  1. Alan Burnside says:

    Absolutely spot on. And I suspect particularly applicable to Labour. Too many political activists going straight from uni to researcher to MP. Know nothing about how the private sector generates the wealth to support public services. More interested in the unfair redistribution of wealth than its creation. It has been a most dispiriting week for politics.

  2. The Listener says:

    Spot on indeed, but how are we to proceed with an understood democracy, actioned by competent politicians? Might we not take a leaf out of the German educational system which teaches about the nuts and bolts of their political system to pupils at around 14 years of age. Thus there is at he very least more public involvement with their political parties than we have here. Whether or not it produces a better standard of political representative, I do not know.

    With regard to off shore accounts and lack of info in UK tax returns. We all purchase services and goods at what we consider best value. Some items coming from the Far East, are produced more cheaply because of extremely low wages by our standards and at times the employment of children. Think of the moral aspect of that which does not seem to exercise our minds unduly. Likewise why be shocked about the PM’s father’s off shore business? All payments on dividends submitted to shareholders would have been liable to UK tax. The actual company is a legal person, in its own right, subject to the laws and tax of the off shore country. If that tax regime and fees were less onerous than UK tax, that allowed the company in whatever it did to make money more efficiently for itself, the company, a corporate person in its own right acting within the tax laws of the country in which it was situated. The shareholders receiving dividends would pay tax in their own countries at the appropriate rate.

    All the disingenuous rubbish talked in Parliament and in the press was hypocritical in the extreme, borne out of, I suspect, jealously by little minded people. The quality of our representatives has to improve, but how?

    • Yes, I wrote about this last week and have done so many times before.

      It is really the “delusion of objectivity” – the speed we drive at is reasonable but everyone else is a deluded maniac or a dithering lunatic.

      So it is with our moral compass!

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