British Budget speeches do not customarily raise laughs, but on Wednesday Alistair Darling prompted loud guffaws, and not only from government benches, when he announced a new information exchange agreement with Belize. The hilarity was because this Central American state is where Lord Ashcroft, bane of Labour marginals in the run-up to the election, shelters his zillions. The new agreement is unlikely to have any dramatic, revelatory, effect, but it was a much-appreciated touch.
For myself, I have been following the twists of the Ashcroft saga less because of concerns about any electoral advantage that might accrue to the Conservatives than because of the mirror-image it presents to my own experience as a Briton who has lived and worked abroad. Michael Ashcroft, it seems, has succeeded over many years where the expatriate Dejevsky household signally failed – which is to enjoy the best of both worlds.
On the one hand, he succeeded in convincing the UK authorities that he was permanently resident here, or intended to become so, as a condition of being granted a peerage. But he did better than this. While enjoying the benefits of UK residence, he also preserved key aspects of his previous non-resident status, which allowed him not to pay tax on assets outside the UK.
On becoming resident, he also became a "non-dom" – someone who lives in Britain, but is not regarded as so closely connected to this country as to be classed as "domiciled" here. You might argue, as I might, that a seat in the Lords for life suggests a pretty close connection, but the great and the good clearly have other ways of doing things.
Why this grates is because that is not how the system works for most people. When I became a foreign correspondent in the late 1980s, my husband, a US citizen long-resident in Britain, came too. Then, as now, Americans are taxed on worldwide earnings – something the UK Treasury hasn't yet emulated – so anything he earned was subject to US tax, regardless of where he lived. A dual taxation agreement with the UK meant he did not have to pay twice, but he did have to pay any difference between the two assessments.
It turned out, however, that living and working (freelance) in a third country was not enough for my husband to escape this dual obligation. The British judged that, while physically out of the country for sufficient days to qualify as non-resident, he was "resident" for tax purposes – though not resident, it should be added, in the sense that he qualified, say, for medical treatment on the NHS. Nor, it turned out, was he deemed resident for, well, residency, purposes.
After being back in the UK for a year, he applied for British citizenship, not least because the US had recently dropped its objections to Americans becoming dual nationals. Having lived in the UK for almost 20 years, he ostensibly met all the requirements. A-ha, but the Home Office – now it would be the UK Border Agency – thought otherwise. After a long sojourn at an office in Liverpool, his papers came back marked "refused", with a tick in the "insufficient residency" box. His time as a correspondent's spouse, working free-lance abroad, but paying UK taxes, was considered a break in his residency. He had to start again from scratch.
This is how the system works for ordinary people. You are "resident" when they want your money and simultaneously "non-resident" when the benefits, such as NHS treatment or a vote or a passport, are on them. For Lord Ashcroft and his fellow billionaires, it works the other way round.
Do we care how the other half lives in the lucky country?
Here is a young man whose sultry and petulant good looks have already taken all Australia, Cannes and now the Dublin film festival by storm. Rowan McNamara plays Samson to Marissa Gibson's Delilah. They are two indigenous teenagers (aboriginal, native Australian, choose your particular brand of political correctness), living in acute deprivation outside Alice Springs and dreaming of escape – how could they not? Samson and Delilah is released in Britain next week.
The acting is flawless in a naïf way; the desert landscape is spectacular, and it's not hard to imagine the cataclysmic impact on Australian film-goers, still unused to seeing the underside of their "lucky country" so graphically and humanely displayed.
I won't divulge the ending, which may not be what you expect, but, emerging into dark, dank London, I was in two minds. Is there not here, as in Slumdog Millionaire, as in Precious – about a disadvantaged black teenager-made-good – a voyeurism that perpetuates a condescending view of difference and confines those who are not quite like us to a box marked "curious species". I just wonder.
Come on, Britain, dress up – yes, you can!
At the start of the year, GQ magazine – rather unkindly, I felt – named Gordon Brown "worst-dressed man". Now his fellow-countrymen, ie. you and me, have won Britain the title "Worst Dressed Country in Europe". Almost half of those asked – all right, by a consumer website called Ciao – agreed; the runner-up was Germany.
And if I had been polled (which I wasn't), I would have had to agree. Returning to the UK from almost anywhere in Europe is a sartorially depressing experience. From the passport queue to the Underground, train or bus, we look collectively dowdy, scruffy, ill-kempt and devoid of style. Time was when people put on something special to "come up" to town. No more.
Alas, foreign visitors swiftly assimilate. Our "anything goes" informality is even why some like coming here. No need to put on make-up before nipping out for a paper. Nor even, we learned recently, any need to change out of pyjamas before a trip to the supermarket – until Tesco got inflated ideas about its status.
Borrowing the concept of "Dress-down Friday" from the United States, we went one worse. Dress-down for them is that strange hybrid, "smart-casual", that requires a whole alternative wardrobe. Dress-down for us is tatty jeans and T-shirts. We'll never be Italian in the style stakes, but could we not at least make Dress-down Friday conditional on a Dress-up Monday to follow?Reuse content