David Gauke, junior Treasury Minister, has responded to the growing concerns about offshoring and tax avoidance by claiming that it is immoral to pay cash in hand to tradesmen. The scales have fallen from my eyes.
Meet Mick, my window cleaner. Once a month he comes to the house and cleans my windows, for payment in cash and kind (a large mug of strong brown tea, with three sugars. International capitalism needs its sweeteners). To be fair, being an immoral kind of chap, I’ve never asked him whether he’ll take a cheque, or Visa; somehow our conversations about the weather, gardening or daily Brighton life never quite got on to his tax obligations, or offshoring (he did mention that he was taking a holiday on the Isle of Wight but, lax citizen that I am, I didn’t quite manage to raise the question of tax jurisdictions). It’s probably a failure of my lefty morals that I failed to realise that it is not HMRC’s sweetheart deals with the likes of Vodafone, or the trillions of dollars in offshore funds, or even the way that revenues fell off a cliff after the bank collapse of 2008, but my willingness – like other middle-class reprobates – to hand over used fivers to my window cleaner that has led to the current crisis in tax revenues. We on the morally corrupted left should be so grateful that there is a coalition in power that will readjust our moral compass – we should be grateful to David Gauke, just as we are to Nick Clegg for his stand on tuition fees or for Ian Duncan-Smith’s moral courage in exposing the truth about thieving claimants in wheelchairs.
More seriously, for all the behaviour of the coalition, there are moments that reveal the temper of this coalition in all its horror. I wonder which is the worst aspect of Gauke’s comments (which I assume were sanctioned by those higher up the coalition food chain) – the hypocrisy, the detachment from reality, the sheer abject triple-dyed stupidity. Gauke has a point of course – there is a shadow economy and the HMRC (which has been quietly sacking tens of thousands of tax enforcement staff) needs to get to grips with it. But this is not where the big picture evasion is. Offshoring – which is quite simply the attempt of big businesses to avoid paying their dues in the countries where they operate – is now regarded as routine business practice. How about ending the homely moralism and going after this deeply anti-democratic practice? And how about putting the blame for evasion on the perpetrators, rather than indulging in this sort of deflection?
I’m beginning to think that the most culpable aspect of it all is the tacit assumption that we, the electorate, are stupid and gullible, and are only fit to be fed this drivel. The fact that the tax debate is where it is now – a debate that the coalition never wanted, and which has been opened up by people as diverse as Richard Murphy and UK Uncut – is perhaps a reassurance that we, the people, are nowhere near as gullible as Tories and Liberal Democrats would like. And when the tax practices of big businesses are as clear and transparent as my windows, perhaps then Gauke can prioritise small tradesmen. And employ a few more staff at HMRC to do it.