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?