David Cameron insists that his tax affairs are ‘a private matter’. That’s when asked whether he is still implicated in the great tax-avoidance scandal that is front-page news today, the ‘Panama Papers’; as we know his grim and arrogant-looking father was. (Meaning, incidentally, that Cameron-fils has almost certainly profited from it, if it helped pay his Eton fees.) This is very much a British upper-class way of looking at things, with their earnings being up there with their sexual orientations and religious beliefs, as matters strictly between them and their Gods. To ask an English gentleman in public what he or she earns is tantamount to asking whether they like doing it doggy-style. At best it’s ‘bad form’; at worst an intrusion.
In fact, of course, how you earn your lucre is of very great public relevance. Money isn’t earned (or inherited) in a vacuum, after all, or by your own unaided efforts, but is facilitated by the opportunities, restrictions and rules that the political society around you provides. What anyone earns is of public relevance, and therefore of legitimate interest, in a democratic society. Dependable knowledge of it would help the democracy set those opportunities, restrictions and rules, to society’s benefit as a whole. That is especially so when private profit can have an impact on the more general good, as is clearly the case when taxes that could be spent on new schools and hospitals are spirited away in ‘tax havens’: especially when responsibility for those tax havens lies with the British Foreign Office ultimately. (I’m referring here of course to the British Virgin Islands. As a historian of the British Empire, I’m looking forward to working out in my mind whether Britain’s abolishing their tax haven status will amount to ‘imperialism’ or not.) Then there’s the obvious question, in the case of politicians, of whether any of these hidden emoluments could affect their opinions on – for example – tax policy generally. Whatever their personal tax statuses may be – and I don’t know any more about Cameron’s and Osborne’s than anyone apart from their Gods – they must be in the backs of ministers’ minds when they decide who is to bear the worst blows of ‘austerity’. So of course we should all be able to see their tax returns, as honest Jeremy has already volunteered, and I believe American Presidential candidates are expected to do.
In Sweden, as I understand it, this is entrenched in law. The principle of ‘freedom of information’ means that anyone is entitled to have sight of anyone else’s tax returns and assessments. Of course there will still be ways of avoiding this scrutiny – I shouldn’t be surprised if some Swedish names turn up in the ‘Panama Papers’; but at least the principle is there. This probably derives from Sweden’s more social and democratic underlying culture than our more individualistic and secretive one. I’ve lived there, on and off, for twenty years, paying Swedish taxes, and not yet noticed any ill effects.
(A shortened version of this appeared in the Guardian, Letters Page, 6 April.)