Panama used to be principally famous for a couple of things: its canal and its hats. Now it’s famous for Mossack Fonseca, the offshore business that seems primarily to exist in order to hide other people’s business. Interest in the company has peaked, and been piqued, in Britain by the revelation that the prime minister’s father, Ian Cameron, used Mossack Fonseca to establish a company called Blairmore Holdings. That’s like a name out of a Martin Amis novel – how perfect that a business with a distinct air of dodge about it should seem to have been named after David Cameron’s predecessor-but-one! But no one can accuse the PM of being slow to get to grips with what MF has been doing. No, he’s appointed the executive chairman of the Customs & Revenue (HMRC), a gentleman called Edward Troup, to investigate, so at least matters will start to get sorted…
…hang on! Mr Troup used to be a partner in a London law firm called Simmons & Simmons, which began advising Blairmore in 2001. In the past he has described taxation as “legalised extortion”. The words ‘poacher’ and ‘gamekeeper’ do come quickly to mind here, surrounded by an expletive or two. Really, you just could not make up this stuff.
A week or so ago, The Times published a profile of a British businessman called John Caudwell. The 63-year-old was the founder of Phones4u and estimates his personal wealth at around £1.5 billion. He says he prides himself on being the UK’s highest taxpayer, having handed over £300 million to HMRC in the past six years. Bully for him and all that, but there is a point to this. It might only be when/if we ever get to the point that it is seen as a badge of honour to pay tax, the more the merrier, that we begin to reverse the pattern of extreme tax avoidance/evasion that blights Britain and other countries. For that way, the road we’re on, lies the way to ruination.
A rich American businesswoman, Leona Helmsley, who rejoiced in the nickname ‘the Queen of Mean’, once notoriously opined that only the “little people” pay taxes. Obviously, she meant you and me. Taxation was something that did not concern people as wealthy as her. She would likely approve of the way the Greek society has developed. Tax-dodging in Athens was initially confined to the aristocracy, shipping magnets and sundry playboys. Then it began to trickle down, so that doctors, civil servants and plumbers were at it. And then everyone else as well. And just look at how well that has turned out for the Greek economy, where the government even now is probably figuring if it can hold out until next year before taking its begging bowl back to the EU for a fourth time.
It seems that every day the newspapers make mention of apparent corporate tax scams – Amazon, Apple, Google, Starbucks; all your favourite brands are there. If we all start to believe that everyone else bar ourselves is at it, then it assuredly won’t be too long before we are, too. Like I said, the road to ruin.