Two simple questions – maybe a bit pedantic. They’re to do with Rishi Sunak’s wife, Aksharta Murty, and her huge fortune, most of which she’s managed to avoid paying UK tax on, by choosing to claim ‘non-dom’ status: a common (and entirely legal) practice among the very rich in Britain; thus depriving the British Treasury – presided over by her husband, the Chancellor of the Exchequer – of many millions of pounds that it could have used rather better in these straightened times. (Whether it would have done, of course, is another question.) This has been the subject of much comment in the press, with most commentators – even some right-wing ones – deploring the hypocrisy and crass insensitivity of it; while others argue that as she broke no law there could be no problem with it; and wasn’t it rather mean and unchivalric – possibly even sexist and racist – to try to get at the Chancellor through his wife?
My points here are rather different, and focus on semantics, or the definitions of words. Firstly: ‘dom’, as in ‘non-dom’, is short for ‘domiciled’, and means ‘lives in’ (from the Latin, ‘domus’, or ‘home’). Murty was born in India, but incontrovertibly lives in the UK presently: at No. 11 Downing Street, to be precise, although she and hubby also have grand domūs (pl.) elsewhere in the country. Secondly, the money that comes to her from overseas she classes as ‘earnings’. But that’s a misnomer, surely? Most of her fortune appears to be dividends from gifts bestowed on her by her multi-billionaire father. To call these monies ‘earnings’ is surely stretching the meaning of the word somewhat. ‘Earnings’ are money you’ve ‘earned’, usually by work of some kind. Murty’s fortune wasn’t earned in this sense, but merely and fortuitously fell into her lap. ‘Profits’ or ‘unearned income’ would be better words for it.
Then there’s the question of where these profits are situated just now. Another notorious way in which very rich people can avoid taxation is by hiding their monies in overseas ‘tax havens’. Murty and her financial advisers won’t tell us whether this is so in her case. For in Britain your tax affairs are a personal and private matter, between you and your God; on a level with your sex life (if you can keep the tabloids out of that). So, unless a whistle-blower in Jersey or the Cayman Islands – or even HMRC – pops up to betray your confidences, your secrets are safe. But wouldn’t it be good, and socially defensible, if we could all know what these rich bastards were doing with their ill-gotten millions?
(In Sweden, incidentally, it’s very different. I don’t know about overseas ‘earnings’; but I do know that my Swedish tax return is already filled out with my salary and pension details when it lands in my postbox. And you can get up anybody’s tax details – I think – on the internet.)
The Murty situation stinks. But not because she’s an Indian, or a woman. It reflects the general opacity and corruption of the British financial system. Which is one of the reasons, as I understand it, why Russian oligarchs love – or used to love – the City of London so much. If he weren’t so compromised by his wife’s situation, Sunak should have the means to correct that.