DJ Taylor: The rich have allies in tax office turncoats

Mr Osborne is shocked at the ruses of the wealthy, but they will get by. Plus, why JKR's next book blocks other authors
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The Independent Online

As is often the case with pious expressions of outrage, the week's most shocking statement came courtesy of someone who, in the course of it, declared himself shocked. In terms of its sheer incongruity, George Osborne's astonishment at the sight of various "anonymised" returns showing just how easy it is for wealthy people to avoid paying tax was on a par with an elderly Lloyd George, say, remarking that he'd never previously noticed quite how corrupt politics was, or Madame de Pompadour reading us a little lecture on feminine wiles. At the very least it made you wonder how exactly the Chancellor has been occupying himself down among the blue books these past couple of years, and why a truth long suspected by the nation's tax-payers should so consistently have escaped the notice of the man at No 11.

On the other hand, all conversions – even belated ones – are welcome, and now that Mr Osborne has had drawn to his attention certain of the ruses that allow a modern Croesus to remit around 10 per cent of his income to the tax-gatherer , he might care to consider some of the remedies that lie to hand. One of these would be to introduce a baseline, whereby, whatever professional advice is taken, no citizen could legally be allowed to pay less than a fixed percentage of his or her income in tax. A second would be to tighten the rules by which individuals can turn themselves into companies and pay corporation tax at 19 per cent. A third would be to undertake a comprehensive review of trust legislation. A fourth would be to start undermining the immensely cosy relationship that exists between HMRC and the four big accountancy firms who manage the tax affairs of the nation's plutocrats.

This is not simply a matter of hospitality and quiet words (see practically any recent issue of Private Eye); it is also a matter of staffing. One of the commonest spectacles when I worked in the City was for the senior partner proudly to announce that Mr X had joined the firm's tax department from the Inland Revenue. A kind of human corkscrew, salary doubled by dint of his transfer to the private sector, would then sidle into view and regale us all with details of the splendid new stratagems he had devised with which to bamboozle his former colleagues. Naturally, if HMRC wants to retain its finest minds then it will have to pay them more money. The alternative is a tax-gathering process that sometimes seems to resemble a game of chess and a widespread assumption that the man from PricewaterhouseCoopers can get you off anything.

With the first "adult" novel by J K Rowling set for UK publication on 27 September, the British book trade is once again eagerly preparing to shoot itself in the foot. The Casual Vacancy, described as "blackly comic" by its publishers, Little, Brown, and running to some 500 pages, will be priced at £20, a good £3 more than the cost of an average hardback novel. The reason for this inflation lies in the fact that any retailer who can afford to will be falling over himself to discount it: WH Smith is taking pre-orders at £10; Amazon is offering an identical 50 per cent knock-down; and doubtless some punctilious Asda strategist is already wondering whether the store can decently undercut to £8.99.

What will happen when Ms Rowling's darling work finally crawls out into the gaze of public scrutiny? Well, the curious thing about this highly desirable item that everyone wants to buy is that no one, apart from Rowling, her agent and Messrs Little, Brown, will make any money out of it. Independent booksellers who can be bothered to join the feeding frenzy will find themselves buying copies from the supermarket down the road, and several million pounds that could have been used to irrigate the British book trade will be thrown away in pursuit of a loss leader.

The point about "cheap books" and the economic paradox that sustains them is that they are fundamentally anti-democratic, leading to fewer bookshops, more sales of fewer bestsellers and, ultimately, less choice for the consumer. After all, the eight-figure sum the industry will lose on The Casual Vacancy could, in a fairer world, have subsidised half a dozen other books that had the advantage of not being written by J K Rowling.

One of the worst dilemmas in which you can be placed is that of supporting a principle while disliking the person who embodies it. And so Rick Santorum's announcement that he was suspending his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination will have left most 50-somethings in a slight quandary. On the one hand there is the welcome thought that a Santorum presidency is exactly what America, let alone the rest of the world, doesn't need at this delicate point in our history. On the other hand there is the equally welcome acknowledgment of Mr Santorum's "relative youth", and the assumption that being 53 doesn't necessarily debar you from high office in a Western democracy. The solution, I suppose, is to find some 53-year-old who is not Mr Santorum, but this hasn't yet occurred to the Republican Party.

The contrast between American and British attitudes to seniority in politics could scarcely be more painful. A US politician of 55 can have half his career ahead of him; here in the youth-conscious UK, William Hague is an elder statesman at 50. It was fashionable in the Seventies to mock the cartel of grand old stagers who ran the Parliamentary Labour Party as a gang of dinosaurs ripe for superannuation. And yet James Callaghan, who became prime minister at the ripe age of 64, had previously been chancellor, home secretary and foreign secretary. What modern British politician has a tithe of his experience?

The news that Disney is to sponsor a film about the "fractious" relationship between its legendary founder and the novelist P L Travers, author of Mary Poppins – Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson to star – raised several questions about the creative process that turns a well-loved book into an even better-loved film. The standard critical line is to sympathise with the poor benighted author; Ms Travers, it scarcely needs saying, disliked Disney's animated films and sniffed at the Americanisms that swiftly infiltrated her own.

And yet, whatever liberties he may have taken with the text, Disney did give the distinctly de haut en bas Miss Poppins some charm, while also granting her an immortality that Travers would have struggled to acquire on her own. The same transformation can be seen in the reconceptualising of James Leo Herlihy's rather desultory novel Midnight Cowboy by the Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger. Creative integrity is a wonderful thing, but if I'd been Ms Travers I'd have taken the money and run.