Grand piano blues (tax is taxing)

It’s a rich house, reeking of money. Big stair-case, crystal chandelier, and a guy at a huge grand piano. His wife, in evening-dress and pearls, says: ‘Play some blues, darling.’ At least, that’s how I remembered the Gary Larson cartoon last week as I listened to a programme about ‘The Non-Doms’ on Radio 4. I don’t want to appear childish, bat as I listened to one super-rich git after another talk about how tough it is to earn millions from the financial sector and how they felt hurt and a little betrayed by Britain, all I could hear after a while was a high-pitched whining. It sounded like this: ‘me me me me me!’

Occasionally someone would admit that paying £30,000 for the privilege of avoiding a just rate of taxation was not a problem, that the amount was chicken feed. And like magic, the whine would resolve into words. But seconds later, when he complained that while Britain had been good to him, ‘there are plenty of other countries out there that would be happy to have me,’ the sound (which I’m calling Selfish Rich Bloke Tinitus) returned, this time sounding like this: ‘bitch bitch bitch, moan moan moan.’

It’s the same thing I hear when a difficult middle child (between first-born and baby) is complaining that nobody loves them. In fact that’s what the ‘non-doms’ (super-wealthy business-people who avoid paying tax on their massive incomes because they technically don’t spend enough time here) are: difficult middle children of the rich kids family. Flamboyant, fun to be around, bringing a lot to the party when they’re at it, but fundamentally very stroppy if something’s not going their way. They are the very essence of the well-heeled wanting to play some blues. Showered with blessings, they are surprised when nobody has much sympathy for them.

‘Ah, but Mr Langley, be fair!’ you cry, ‘these people work very hard for their money!’ I don’t dispute it. But do they really work any harder than a teacher, a factory worker, a church worker? Those people can’t afford great tax lawyers. Those people pay the full rate, and you know what? Good. It is an immense privilege to live in a country where, for instance, the fact you get sick doesn’t mean you will die just because you don’t have money for medicine. As a Christian, that pleases me. And that’s paid for by taxes. Don’t get me wrong: I have my share of hatred for Inland Revenue. Just a few weeks ago, as I was rhythmically beating my head against the wall, self-assessment forms in hand, whimpering: ’take it all… take everything, just make the form-filling stop,’ I would gladly have strangled Adam Hart-Davis while screaming: ‘What did you ever do for us, you Roman-loving geek?! I’ll give you tax needn’t be taxing!’

But our frustrations with the (possibly satanic) bureaucracy involved should not distract us. Income tax is not the most just system (and I would recommend the works of 19th Century economist, Henry George for a brilliant alternative) but it is the next best thing.

The alternative is to privatise everything, meaning that those running tax-supported services will no longer be accountable to the government (and thus to you, me and the teacher/factory-worker who government serves), but to a bunch of shareholders and directors with profit on their minds. What we gain in saved taxes we will pay in service charges and the poor will pay in quality of life on our behalf. There are alternative systems to the current tax regime, and those should be given a chance, but if we care about justice we should be wary of the motives of those just trying to avoid it.

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