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A taxing matter

Depending upon the way you look at the world – or perhaps actually even irrespective of how you look at it – there are some spectacular ironies and side-issues springing from the current furore over what, for shorthand purposes, I shall herein refer to as the ‘Panama Papers’ scandal.

I’m talking about the whole complex issue of the gap between laws and morals; between those principles which might be regarded as absolute and those which are not-so-absolute; hypocrisy in all its forms [e.g. someone demanding one set of standards of others whilst not living up to those standards themselves]; and also perhaps the simple, day-to-day decisions that we all take that may involve some sort of ‘moral’ decision, even if we don’t recognise it at the time.

Yesterday journalists were delighting in the squirming of David Cameron on the issues associated with his father’s offshore vehicle Blairmore Holdings Inc., viz. Downing Street – having first issued the blanket first resort of any PR operation (“This is a private matter”) – having then to issue three further press releases, each attempting to kill off the story by ‘further clarifying’ its predecessor, all of which have (inevitably?) seemed to fail in their goal.

CameronWhy? Because of the way the PR troubleshooting works, of course.

First, your PR man asks you for the absolute truth (and hopes he gets it), this on the basis that – if he knows the worst – he’ll be better able to advise as to what admissions to make in order to kill the story as soon as possible without having any potential long-term adverse (in Mr Cameron’s case, especially political) effects.

First comes ‘Stage 1’ – the ‘complete denial’ option, hoping that the story will then go away.

However, if the problem is real and already public, or likely to become so, or if ‘Stage 1’ (the complete denial) fails, then next comes ‘Stage 2’, i.e. to try and work out what is the least embarrassing (apparently candid) admission that can be made … and then again hope that the story goes away.

Of course, if ‘Stage 2’ doesn’t achieve its object, then you might have to consider ‘Stage 3’, which is to make a further (limited) admission … with the same intended effect.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable in this current Panama Papers scandal as it affects Mr Cameron – well, other than he and his PR people have already had to go to a ‘Stage 4’ further (limited) admission … all within 24 hours of their first comment upon the subject.

The key thing to bear in mind – I’m not saying I can prove this, but I’m drawing a reasonably logical conclusion from all I’ve seen or read – is that (1) Mr Cameron, and/or some elements of his family, have probably at some point benefited financially to some degree or another (even if tiny) from his father’s ‘off-shore activities’; but that (2) because he has invested so much personal political capital in both the Government’s drive to stop global-reach companies shielding their UK revenues from the full effects of UK taxes and also his lead ‘reforming’ stance on the issue of tax evasion/avoidance and promoting ‘tax haven’ territory transparency on who are the ultimate beneficial owners and/or beneficiaries of off-shore companies etc. that it would be embarrassing to the point of catastrophe (potentially to the point of resignation) if he ever had to admit any personal or family connection with tax havens or aggressive tax avoidance.

You see, when it comes to political circles, hypocrisy – real or imagined – is perceived both by politicians and the electorate as a heinous crime. This is despite the fact that it is rare if not impossible to live life without compromising the absolute principles that any of us may hold dear (if there are any).

The fact that all of us in our personal lives have regular encounters with the concept of hypocrisy in some form or another and – depending upon our principles, mood or even perception of the potential outcomes at the time – may take different standpoints on different occasions.

Let me give a few examples – without necessarily specifying where they originate from personal experience:

carIn principle I accept that road speed restrictions are part of the law of the land and that speed can kill.

However, that doesn’t stop me speeding in my car, nor ranting at the iniquity of it all whenever I am caught ‘red-handed’ by a police speeding camera, nor regarding speeding fines (and indeed bans) as no more than an inevitable occupational hazard of using Britain’s roads.

Luvvy actors, stand-up comedians or others who make public speeches attacking the Government for systematically cutting the NHS to the bone, or who appear on picket lines in solidarity with the NHS junior doctors, or who complain about the effects of the bedroom tax or the reform of the welfare and benefits systems, or even criticised the Government for not ‘getting a grip’ on tax avoidance/evasion  … yet who – separately in their own lives – have ever sought or heeded advice from ‘tax planning’ advisers that included anything involving overseas off-shore tax havens, or ‘film-funding schemes enabling tax loss write-offs against income or profits’ or even setting up a ‘for services’ limited company in order to be able to pay less income tax than they would have if they had simply been employed upon an employee (PAYE) contract. Or indeed, have ever taken out private medical insurance, or ‘gone private’ when they or any of their immediate family have needed an operation or medical treatment.

Those who complain in public about the existence of public schools [actually, of course ‘private schools’] and yet who send their own children to them.

Those who rant about tax avoidance/evasion in any form and yet – in their own lives, e.g. as plumbers, electricians, builders or similar tradesmen, either offer to ‘do work for cash’ and/or, as prospective hirers of the same, ask said contractor if he or she ‘will do the work for less if they pay cash in cash’. 

Chugger in London streetHaving for years, almost on principle, walked past innumerable Big Issue sellers, beggars and ‘Chuggers’ [is that what they call people representing charities who try to get passers-by to sign up as donors?] in the street without ever stopping to give them the time of day, still less any money, for no particular I took pity on a Big Issue seller outside Sainsburys last week and gave them a £5 note … and felt hugely morally superior and proud of myself for having done so.

[This against a background in which I have watched Live Aid … and countless Comic Relief and Sports Relief telethons … on television, without being ever moved to donate single penny – and indeed have regularly taken the opportunity to ‘make a cup of tea’ and/or ‘take a comfort break’ whenever one of the sad, tragic, little films about starving kids in Africa or disabled or terminally ill kids in Britain comes on the screen to pluck at the viewers’ heart-strings.]

‘Do as I do, not as I say’ is a phrase trotted out to epitomise the attitude of the hypocrite.

My point is that, deep down, we are all routinely hypocritical. The only issue is the degree of hypocrisy we might exhibit on any particular subject at any particular time.

For example – point me out a public campaigner on animal welfare and the iniquities of factory farming who has never bought examples of products from a factory farm for their private consumption just because they are cheaper (and/or there was nothing else available at the time they needed it). Is that hypocrisy, or just a simple (albeit regrettable) fact of life as we have to live it in the 21st Century?

One downside of becoming a politician is that you have to pretend that, on all aspects of life (including hypocrisy), your standards are impeccable and yet no human being is ever going to be. We all know that. The ‘cross to bear’ for politicians is that – as with others who court the public eye, like celebrities, actors, musicians – discovering and highlighting their little inconsistencies and human failings is ‘fair game’ … and, some might argue, quite rightly so.


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About Bryn Thomas

After a longer career in travel agency than he would care to admit, Bryn became a freelance review of hotels and guest houses at the suggestion of a former client and publisher. He still travels and writes for pleasure. More Posts