D J Taylor: Bump up taxes...but not celebrities

The mother of all battles over revenue, mum's the word on Mrs Bercow, mum-to-be Beyoncé, and rivalry at the school gate

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The "higher taxes for the rich" debate, examples of which have recently broken out both here and in the United States, is probably the least productive argument in modern public discourse.

It generally begins with a "progressive" politician or opinion-broker suggesting that if times are hard, then social justice demands that a larger percentage of tax revenue should be extracted from those in a position to pay it, either by increases in the higher tax band or by adjustments to inheritance tax.

Like a row of iron filings dutifully obeying the magnet's call, these proposals attract the same agitated response – at any rate from the kind of economic liberal who regards almost any form of taxation as the infringement of a basic human right. The rich, we are constantly told, won't stick around in this envy-stricken tax regime of ours unless there are "incentives" for them to do so. Worse, adjusting the inheritance tax rates so that the self-made titan of some family business is forced to leave £30m to his grieving heirs rather than £40m is somehow to stifle his, and their, spirit of enterprise. To these reproaches can be added the traditional economic correspondent's complaint about the rich always being able to find ways of avoiding whatever tax hikes are pressed upon them by way of the highly-paid financial advisers who manage their affairs, thereby rendering the whole exercise futile.

Short of completely reforming the tax system there are only two ways of increasing tax revenues, neither of which involves increasing the rate of direct taxation. One is to bump up receipts from indirect taxation by selecting products and services which rich people enjoy and make the purchasers of them pay more. The other is to find a way of dragging Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs into the 21st century. Like many another tax payer, having settled the tax debt I owed at the end of July in the absence of a tax demand, I received a letter in mid-August explaining that the department had been overwhelmed and if I really felt the need I could wait until September without fear of penalty. This struck me as one of the most pathetic communications ever sent out by a government office.

***

One unlooked-for consequence of the sheer complexity of modern life is the extreme caution that has to be exercised in the pronouncing of a moral judgment. Such is the nature of the ties that bind us these days that practically no one can criticise anyone else without, in the end, being charged with hypocrisy. Lament the venality of some brutal mega-corporation whose disdain for environmental safeguards is a fixture of newspaper exposés and their presence in your pension scheme portfolio can be almost guaranteed. This was brought home to me the other day as I meditated a withering paragraph or two about the antics of Sally Bercow, wife to the Speaker of the House of Commons, evicted from the Celebrity Big Brother ménage but now engaged by Richard Desmond to write a column for the Daily Star Sunday.

The paragraph would naturally have begun by pointing out that Mr Desmond makes the greater part of his income from pornographic magazines and TV channels whose raison d'être is the exploitation and objectification of women, and that Mrs Bercow, consequently, is not much more than a smut-merchant's stooge. Then I recollected that not three months ago I had a short story published in another of Mr Desmond's organs, the Sunday Express Magazine. After which I decided that Mrs Bercow can write columns for whichever paper she wants to and it would be a good idea if I kept my mouth shut.

***

One task a modern social historian could profitably consider is establishing the date at which newspapers lost their highbrow/lowbrow divide and assumed that every reader was beguiled by celebrity tat. This reflection was prompted by the photographs of Beyoncé Knowles's pregnancy "bump" (see inset), which caused such a sensation at the MTV Video Music Awards and had both broadsheet and the red tops queuing up to buy the reproduction rights.

Even a quarter of a century ago, Ms Knowles's contemporary equivalent would have been as welcome on the front page of The Daily Telegraph as a fraternal greeting from the President of the Transport and General Workers' Union. I can remember the expressions of pained disapproval that accompanied The Times' decision to lead its obituaries page with Elvis Presley rather than the distinguished cleric who died on the same day in August 1977. One of the most obvious reasons for this obsession with mass culture, of course, is that newspaper editors, like politicians, grow younger by the day. There will never be another Bill Deedes, who edited the Telegraph well into his seventies. But just as politics could do with more Ken Clarkes, so the Fourth Estate could do with more sixtysomethings at the helm. At the very least they might be able to spare us Beyoncé's bump.

***

I was highly amused by newspaper reports of a survey, carried out by the kind people at Sainsbury, of the anxieties experienced by mothers forced to superintend the school run on the first day of term. According to the findings, the average mother is often deeply traumatised by the ordeal of having to match her peer group's array of fashionable hairstyles and designer clothing, and can spend as much as 25 minutes dressing and titivating herself before she leaves the house.

All this brought back memories of the establishment attended by my elder sons on West Hill, Putney, where a kind of guerrilla war of snobbery was fought at the school gate between the mothers who worked and those whose husbands' City jobs had wafted them into a lotus-land of playing tennis and having their hair done. But the way to stop Mrs X, who turns up to collect her children in Jimmy Choos, looking down her nose at Mrs Y, who lopes up to the gates in trainers, is blindingly obvious. Advocates of school uniforms usually maintain that the great advantage of Identikit blazers is their ability to remove the major source of differentiation between children. Clearly what is needed is something that removes the greatest source of differentiation between parents. A school which enforced a dress code on any adult coming within 50 yards of its premises would be striking a genuine blow for equality.

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