The Panama Papers have highlighted for me an increasing trend amongst politicians, bankers etc. to transfer all responsibility for deciding on the morality of a given action to the legislators in parliament. Anything which isn’t specifically illegal is thus automatically deemed acceptable. The phrase “no wrongdoing” is glibly equated with “no criminal activity”.
The law company at the centre of the scandal has gone one step further in defending itself by drawing attention to the fact that it’s never been charged with any offences in 40 years of activity. True, but the parallel which came to mind was with a very successful bank robber who’s never been caught. Never having been caught isn’t at all the same thing as never having committed any criminal acts, yet that seems to be the essence of their defence.
Cameron in particular is squirming under the pressure, and rightly so given his previous condemnation of others for similar activities. His latest line – that the infamous trust wasn’t set up to avoid tax, merely to allow trading in dollar-denominated securities – is an attempt to tell us that the tax-avoiding consequences of the decision to set up the trust in that way are merely some sort of ‘incidental’ result of an action taken for an otherwise entirely proper reason. Perhaps from his perspective that sounds credible, but I doubt that many will be convinced.
It’s bad enough when the bankers fall back on the simplistic equation of morality and law, but for ministers and legislators, it’s a much bigger problem – because, after all, they’re the ones who make the law. For them to defend an action on the basis that they themselves haven’t actually legislated to outlaw it simply doesn’t wash; rather, it makes the offence worse.It’s probably unreasonable to expect that legislators and ministers, drawn as they are on an almost random basis from the population, will be on average any more honest or less venal than those outside parliament. And given the electoral processes, there is no easy way for the electors to keep them honest, not least because there can never be any guarantee that any replacements will be any better than those they replace. But we can and should challenge the simplistic assumption that morality and legality are one and the same thing. And especially so in the case of those making the laws.