Frankly, it is hard to know which way to turn, except to hide one’s despairing head under a blanket.
Even as the British people confront Brexit, Westminster’s sexual harassment flagellation and fears President Trump may drag us into an Asian war, a new scandal breaks.
The ‘Paradise Papers’, 13.4 million leaked documents on the affairs of some of our richest fellow citizens, reveal the names of a startling number, headed by Her Majesty the Queen, who lodge huge sums offshore, in places where HM Revenue and Customs does not get a sniff at them.
It deserves stress that most of this activity is perfectly legal. But at a time when Jeremy Corbyn’s neo-Stalinist Labour Party is ahead in the polls, the Government is tottering, wages are stagnant and new figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility show taxation heading towards taking its largest slice of national income since 1970 (34.4 per cent in 2019-20), it is hard to imagine a more brutal blow at the image of capitalism.
‘At a time when Jeremy Corbyn’s neo-Stalinist Labour Party is ahead in the polls, the Government is tottering’
What are people struggling to manage household debt supposed to make of the revelations? Why should the young, unable to buy homes or find well-paid jobs, see anything ‘fair’ about these rules of the game?
How can those of us who passionately believe that capitalism is the least bad way to run our affairs expect poorer voters to agree?
Throughout history the odds have been stacked in favour of the rich, which is why we have a welfare state — thank goodness — to help level the pitch.
But to sustain faith in the essential justice of the system among the bulk of the electorate who do not own mansions and Bentleys, we need to believe that everybody pays a decent whack of taxes.
Fat cats, especially in the City of London, still do not understand that the political damage done by the 2008 financial crash persists to this day. There is bitter resentment among voters, which may yet put Corbyn’s crazy gang into Downing Street, about the bankers’ marriage of arrogance, greed and incompetence, matched by the same qualities in many FTSE chief executives.
There is cause for deep concern about the political impact in the decades ahead of millions of job losses through automation: these will affect even relatively well-educated people.
Even without all the other troubles afflicting the world, the chasm between an elite assured of getting ever wealthier, and a much larger number of people whose prospects are going nowhere, poses a historic challenge.
Now, on top of that, a window is thrown open yet again on the secret affairs of our super-rich, which shows them shielding large portions of their fortunes from the taxman.
This has been happening for years, of course.
‘There is bitter resentment among voters, which may yet put Corbyn’s crazy gang into Downing Street’
In the days of pen and ink ledgers, however, we knew little about who held what accounts in the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Jersey or any of the other typical ‘sunny places for shady people’.
The computer age has changed that. Suddenly, a single principled, mischievous or malicious person — choose the adjective according to your point of view — can leak super-secret information to the world’s media, firing a missile into capitalism, at the touch of a keyboard.
The Paradise Papers lay bare the fact that all sorts of people who enjoy living alongside us refuse to pay their rightful share of the costs of doing so. Moreover, the documents name and shame the dodgers — which, however you dress it up, is what they are.
The Queen is in one sense the least blameworthy, because it is wildly unlikely that she herself has any inkling that £10 million of her private fortune lives in a tax haven. But it defies belief that her financial advisers should have allowed such a thing.
While Jeremy Corbyn is characteristically foolish to talk about apologies, there should be changes and resignations among those who have exposed the Royal Family to such embarrassment.
As for other prominent people named as holding large sums in offshore trusts, it remains to be confirmed whether former Tory deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft broke — as is claimed, but which he denies — an undertaking given when he received his peerage, that he would renounce his former non-domiciled tax status, which the documents suggest that he retained.
He also stands accused of breaching the rules on ‘hands-off’ trust management.
The argument is put, that if the very rich feel they have to pay too much tax, they will go and live somewhere else. But it cannot be right, when most people pay a legally appointed portion of our incomes to the Treasury, that the most pampered escape more lightly.
Britain has discovered by painful experience since 1945, that if governments tax wealth too harshly, its owners take their money — and spending power — elsewhere.
‘The Queen is in one sense the least blameworthy, because it is wildly unlikely that she herself has any inkling that £10 million of her private fortune lives in a tax haven’
But, today, taxes on the rich are not unreasonably high. It is the ‘squeezed middle’ — households earning between £40,000 and £100,000 a year — on whom they bear too heavily.
The national budget deficit is still terrifyingly large, which we sometimes forget amid all the other political dramas: in the first six months of this financial year, the Government spent £32.5 billion more than it received.
The Exchequer needs all the revenue it can get. Every pound of tax the rich avoids paying is another pound the rest of us must find. Some of my super-successful friends will respond by saying: ‘Come off it, Max — this is real old “politics of envy” stuff that plays straight into Labour’s hands.’
Sorry, but it seems to me that only by confronting the grievances created by tax avoidance can we hope to avoid the tragedy of a Corbyn government, more Left-wing than any in our history.
I am surprised how forgiving the public is to celebrities, sportsmen and movie stars who queue up for and, indeed, receive honours, yet make their lives in such ghastly places as Monaco, to escape paying their debts to Britain.
Every trumpeted ‘government crackdown’ — such a silly, empty phrase — on tax-avoiders misses the big fish.
As we enter harder times, people who pay their dues will look ever more sceptically upon those who live in Mayfair or Gloucestershire, while keeping their cash in the Cayman Islands. This may not be illegal, but it is assuredly ugly.
It is not surprising the BBC and The Guardian are making a banquet of the Paradise Papers leaks, because many of those who make the Corporation’s films or write the newspaper’s headlines are panting to see Corbyn take power, untroubled by the prospect that this would drag Britain backwards by generations.
The Corbynistas are among the few people in the world who have this year celebrated the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in the belief that Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin had the right ideas for mankind.
But their folly does not alter the fact that the exposure of the secret treasure troves of the rich, in places where taxation hurts pockets less than one’s butler’s salary, intensifies the strain upon our entire social and political system.
The selfishness of the offshore trustafarians threatens to make ‘bashing the rich’ respectable again.
If sensible Britain is to make the argument against Labour to naive young voters who never experienced the horrors of Seventies socialism, our society’s winners need to be seen to pay their taxes.