This isn’t politics, it’s accountancy
The obsession with how much tax politicians pay confirms that the cult of transparency is destroying political debate.
‘You’re a fucking liar.’
For those sharing the lift with London mayor Boris Johnson and his arch-rival-cum-nemesis, mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone, Johnson’s post-radio-debate anger was certainly impressive.
Rather less impressive, however, was the reason for Johnson to launch a few expletives the way of everyone’s favourite whiny-voiced newt-lover. Because it wasn’t an issue of political gravity that made Johnson’s blood boil. It wasn’t even the once-vexed question of London buses, ‘to bend or not to bend?’. No, what got Johnson’s goat were claims Livingstone has been making about something that once might have been deemed an entirely private affair: Johnson’s personal tax arrangements.
That’s right: the most important issue, the most vital point of conflict ahead of next month’s London mayoral election has turned out to be how much and in what way the respective candidates pay their taxes. For future historians looking to gauge the state of political life in twenty-first-century Britain, the Great Tax Debate of 2012 could provide the perfect snapshot. It’s all there: the trumping of politics by personality; the petty, acrimonious, squabbling in place of substantial debate; and a hyperventilating press reporting it all as if it signified something more than sound and fury.
Still, all the candidates seem to have embraced this cold-button issue with depressing zest. Following Livingstone’s jibes, Johnson published his earnings and the amount of tax he pays, as have the other candidates, the Green Party’s Jenny Jones and the quasi-celebrity ex-copper and current Lib Dem candidate, Brian Paddick. As it turns out, it is Livingstone’s own arrangements that look most slippery: he uses a company he set up, Silveta, to channel his earnings, thereby paying corporation tax rather than the far more costly income tax. For those who care about these things, Silveta has a staff of just three, one of whom is Livingstone’s wife.
That the death of politics, or, if you prefer, the rise of accountancy, is playing itself out in the London mayoral elections ought not to be a surprise. Established under the spin and personality-obsessed New Labour administration, the position of London mayor has always lent itself to big personalities rather than big politics. So it is hardly a great shock that a personal matter has been deemed so important. But this taxing furore has had ramifications for British politics as a whole. Now it seems that there is an increasing clamour among the British political class for all politicians to start revealing the whys and wherefores of their tax arrangements. Which, as a political spectacle, is right up there with watching paint dry.
First up was Tory coalition chancellor George Osborne, who told the Telegraph: ‘My personal principle has been: make the rules in general more transparent. We are happy to consider publishing tax returns for people seeking the highest offices.’ Business secretary Vince Cable was similarly quick to drop his office drawers: ‘I’m quite happy to be open about it. I have no problem with my tax return being published while I am in government.’ And, not to be outdone, Labour waded in, too, complete with an oh-so-sly dig about the affluence of senior Tories: ‘We’ll look at any proposals, and match anything the government actually does. The real issue now isn’t anything as complicated as tax returns. It’s ministers coming clean about whether they benefit themselves from the tax cut for millionaires introduced by George Osborne in his budget.’
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In fact, criticism of the cult of transparency has been almost entirely wanting. While the Sun was busy undertaking a half-baked exposé of Osborne’s own earnings and tax arrangements, the Telegraph, through its editorial, called on politicians to let it all hang out: ‘We urge all three party leaders to follow Mr Livingstone’s grudging lead, and embrace the transparency that they have so frequently advocated.’ A Guardian columnist agreed: ‘For a nation that lived through the expenses scandal to deem the tax affairs of those who tax them to be none of their beeswax would be an act of self-loathing too far even for me.’
In fact, about the only dissenting voice came from UKIP’s Nigel Farage: ‘Osborne wants politicians to publish their tax returns in the cause of transparency. But that will never be enough. When will it end? The last 20 years of tax returns? School reports? Medical records?’
Despite his hyperbole, Farage touches upon something important: the contemporary obsession with transparency, itself a product of the mid-1990s, New Labour-led obsession with ‘cleaning up politics’ and, in one-time MP Martin Bell’s case, wearing a whiter-than-white suit, has led to an infernal, self-propelling and self-defeating logic.
The premise is that we the public do not trust politicians. We suspect them of underhand dealings, of lining their own expense-form-laden pockets, of having meals with super-rich party donors all too ready to whisper sweet somethings into their ears. And the only way to correct this impression, ‘to restore trust’, the political class seems to have concluded, is to expose virtually every aspect of a politicians’ life to the public gaze - even who has come round for tea.
Hence the endless, cross-party mantra of ‘transparency’ and openness. In fact, so inherently virtuous is transparency considered that upon forming the coalition government in 2010, the Tories proudly promised to be ‘the most open and transparent government in the world’.
The problem with this obsession with transparency is that far from reassuring the public that politicians are to be trusted, it does the opposite. It entrenches public suspicion of, and cynicism towards, politicians. And that’s because the existence of ever-more intrusive ‘transparency’ mechanisms, from Number 10’s very own departmental transparency website to the calls now to make public politicians’ tax arrangements, suggests that politicians need to be monitored, need to be watched, need, in the words of communities secretary Eric Pickles, an ‘army of armchair auditors’ to keep them in line. That is, if politicians can get away with it, they will.
More important, however, is the damage the transparency obsession does to political life. For this focus on exposing fully the personality of the politician, and its supposed manifestations, be it an individual’s mortgage arrangements or their tax receipts, comes at the expense of a focus on what a politician actually does or believes. To base an entire election on personality in this way only deepens our political disenfranchisement. We are no longer being encouraged to judge a politician on this or that political vision, whether it’s their austerity economics or their commitment to the war in Afghanistan; we are being encouraged to judge them on how they pay their taxes, or whether their wife can be considered an employee, as Livingstone claims, just because she did the footnotes on his autobiography. This isn’t politics; it’s just petty.
There is a worrying twist to all this, too. The automatic suspicion of people, the presumption that their motives are base, and that the public gaze, like that of an Eastern Bloc police informant, will keep them in line, is not really confined to politicians. The authoritarian drive for transparency knows no such distinction. If those demanding that the wealthy ought to be shamed into earning less have their way, we will all have to make public our salaries and tax arrangements. ‘The taboo is broken and must lead to universal transparency’, declaimed the Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee. ‘Stripping off the veil of financial modesty would be a shock at first, but we would get used to earnings and taxes belonging in the public realm, not the private one – wills are already public documents. What is there to hide, except dishonesty or moral shame at earning multiples more than others who work as hard or harder?’
Whether the intention is to shame politicians into financial probity or corral people into ‘we’re all in this together’ austerity, it seems that ‘transparency’ is rapidly becoming the authoritarian’s favourite call to arms.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.