It’s likely that Labour’s promise to force all those earning over £1 million a year to publish their income tax returns will prove popular, although the likelihood of them being called on to implement this promise any time soon is low, and based on past performance, no promise given by a politician before an election can be relied upon to become fact once the people have voted. They are, though, appealing to a general feeling that the richest in our society are not paying their fair share, and that they are using clever accountants and advisors to come up with ways of paying less than they should.
The problem, however, is that most of what they do is perfectly legal – there is an oft-stated distinction between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion. And if people are doing something entirely legal, it leaves me with an uncomfortable feeling that Labour is, in effect, arguing that the media and public should be allowed, nay encouraged, to hound them into doing what’s morally right rather than simply what’s legally right. It’s almost encouraging an outbreak of mob rule.
That doesn’t mean that I support the idea that anything goes as long as it’s legal. I don’t agree that people should be allowed to use the fact that something isn’t actually illegal as a defence for doing something which offends the public sense of what’s ‘right’. But I know, even as I say that, that I’m making some assumptions about what public morality is, and about who has the right to define what is, or is not, acceptable; let alone take enforcement of such morality into their own hands. And let’s be honest, based on the utter dishonesty of some sections of the press in the UK, do we really want to put that definition into their hands? Yet that could be the effect of what Labour are proposing.
None of that means that Labour don’t have a point. But here’s an alternative suggestion: instead of using legislation to force people to undergo a semi-random process of ritual public humiliation for doing things which are entirely legal, why not legislate to make those dubious practices illegal? Why not simplify and reinforce the UK’s hopelessly over-complex tax code, and employ adequate resources to ensure compliance with the law? That would seem to me to be a better and more consistent and evenly-applied use of government power than reinstating the medieval practice of “hue and cry”.But then, perhaps it doesn’t make for such an easy headline.