Tom Sutcliffe: Call tax dodgers by their proper name

Social Studies: I'd guess there are vastly more tax avoiders in the country than there are benefit frauds
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The Independent Online

"Check against delivery" is the phrase that's usually employed when the text of a party leader's speech is issued to journalists in advance – an ironic sort of warning to attach to a politician's promises, when you think about it. It's as if they actually felt it necessary to remind us that there can be a gap between words and deeds. Amazingly, given the amount of effort and thought that goes into these speeches, the countless drafts and revisions and the late-night sessions scribbling away in the hotel rooms, you often end up feeling that "Check before delivery" would have been equally pertinent advice.

Take the Deputy Prime Minister's tough statement about tax evasion, for example – released early yesterday in various quarters with that odd formula "Mr Clegg will say", and then repeated yesterday afternoon in Liverpool. "We all agree it's wrong when people help themselves to benefits they shouldn't get", Mr Clegg said, "But when the richest people in the country dodge their tax bill that is just as bad. Both come down to stealing money from your neighbours." Did nobody, at any point, say "But Deputy Prime Minister nobody will really feel that's true"?

This isn't an apologia for tax-dodgers, incidentally. Given that, along with 99 per cent of my fellow citizens, I imagine that the definition of "rich" starts somewhere comfortably above my own income tax bracket, I quite like the idea that millionaire tax evaders might be forced to cough up some of the cash they've been squirreling away in the Caymans. I'm firmly against dodging, and pretty incompetent at minimisation – which, as I understand it, is the one you're actually allowed to do. But even so I doubt very much that anyone – besides Mr Clegg and his speechwriters perhaps – really believes that tax avoidance amounts to "stealing money from your neighbours" in the same way that fraudulent benefit claims do. One reason for this is the quite widespread feeling that tax is a kind of theft itself – democratically legitimated, perhaps, and indispensable to any kind of decent civic society – but nonetheless an abstraction of money which is "ours" by right and the government's only by compulsion. Mr Clegg might be correct in strictly logical terms (the consequences in both cases being a higher tax bill for the upright citizen) but I doubt that he's aligned with popular gut instinct.

For one thing I'd guess there are vastly more tax avoiders in the country than there are benefit frauds. Every cash-in-hand payment to a plumber or builder is tax avoidance after all – and I doubt that the people who've engaged in that very common practice think of themselves as on a par with somebody faking a disability claim. It's difficult to imagine serious newspapers publishing articles advising their readers on how to obstruct an investigation into falsely claimed benefits – in the way that every broadsheet newspaper produced guides on how to stall demands for unpaid tax after the recent PAYE calculation errors. I hope Mr Clegg does yet deliver on his words. But he'll be more likely to do it if he accuses tax dodgers of not doing their fair share, rather than calling them thieves.





It takes soul to raise a laugh

The Pope's astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno, has apparently declared himself ready to baptise aliens. The context for this generous offer was a newspaper interview – and it's not entirely clear whether Brother Guy had cleared his speculative outreach programme with the Vatican first. His declaration – "Any entity, no matter how many tentacles it has, has a soul" – would seem to beg a number of very knotty theological questions, though the qualification he added – "Only if it asked" – would seem to close at least one of them off.

The ability to ask for baptism surely presupposes sufficient intelligence to be able to grasp the concept in the first place and then find a means of communication that would allow Father Guy to conduct a proper instruction in the Faith. Whether an entity this intelligent would ever make such a request is another matter – since such a being, tentacles or not, would presumably be in a position to see that some elements of the faith were (speaking from a cosmic perspective) just a little parochial and bizarre.

I'm afraid Brother Guy's offer immediately brought to mind that famous advert for instant mashed potato. On one side of the table Brother Guy is trying to explain Transubstantiation. On the other the alien is gripped by mounting hilarity at the earnest hubris of this strange forked creature. I have no better grounds for the following statement than Brother Guy does for his, but I'm willing to bet that any entity with a soul will also have a sense of humour.





Where's the... what?

I'm touched by the revelation, in a Sunday newspaper, that Gordon Brown once spent a long session with his election debate advisers trying to convince them that "Where's the meat in the pie?" was a knock-out phrase with which to expose David Cameron's essential hollowness as a politician. As you'll already know, if you watched the debates, the advisers won out and Brown was reduced instead to cheesy pre-cooked gags about his boys at bathtime. The story was told as an example of Brown's hopeless detachment from electoral reality, but it's hard to imagine, really, that the pie line would have gone down worse than the lines he did use.

True, it's just a naturalisation of Walter Mondale's dismissive question to Gary Hart during the 1984 presidential primaries ("Where's the beef") but it's not a bad one. We've all had the pie experience surely? Promising golden crust, alluring aroma... and then you bite into it and find a steamy vacancy with a few large chunks of potato and a wizened bit of worryingly unidentifiable grey meat. I think it might have spoken to the electorate and Mr Brown – undeniably meaty and densely packed – risked very little by opening up the pie analysis territory. Even if it hadn't worked it would have been authentically Brown flavoured, rather than synthetic. It's the emulsifiers and additives that made the debates so bland – and they were almost all supplied by the advisers, not the candidates.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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