The answer, from the Grauniad to the Daily Mail, is no. Peter Welch has been nobly reading the Mail so that we don’t have to, and reports on the spat currently taking place between Our Vince and Sir Richard Branson. To have a Liberal Democrat present the case for the opposition here is, as Peter says, something of a coup, but after all if there’s one thing Daily Mail readers hate more than benefit scroungers, it’s fat cats and tax havens.
It’s been clear for some time that what started out as a lone call for nationalisation from Vince Cable has increased steadily in tempo and volume to the point where it’s an acceptable mainstream position (imagine!) What is interesting to me is the range of people now asking the questions about Branson’s personal and corporate probity. The Mail, in common with many other major papers, has been doing some fairly sustained campaigning against the Virgin bid from the beginning, as a search on “Richard Branson” on the site reveals. But it’s the specialists too – Prem Sikka had this piece in CiF back in early December that totally passed me by, and more recently Richard Murphy, the tax research guru I read when I am feeling big and clever, echoes the concerns.
What exactly constitutes tax abuse is a question that exercises some of financial services’ most agile and morally adaptive minds. Eighteen months in that dark industry has left me with a distrust of complaints about “loopholes”, and the supposed moral degeneracy of those “exploiting” them. It is inappropriately emotive language, and I say this as one who regularly rants about people who have wot I reckon to be too much money for social comfort. Either a particular practice or treatment is against the law or it isn’t, and if the latter then we must agree to it, even if we mightn’t like the results (if we really don’t like the results, then the law itself is defective).
Balance is maintained by a communal understanding that there is a point at which avoidance (legal) becomes evasion (illegal), and that it’s in everyone’s interests not to push it by contravening too many of those unwritten tax laws which collectively say, in effect, “It shall be illegal for persons to be greedy bastards and wilfully twist the wording of inoffensive provisions for their own nefarious purposes”.
So when the condemnation of an individual’s tax arrangements are as universal as this, it’s time to be very afraid – because the law which says a tax haven abuser should not be allowed to own a bank is just such a one of those unwritten laws.