Brendan O’Neill: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the taxman!
How did the taxman come to be seen as a good guy, as a morally flawless creature who should be cheered as he chases after tax-dodging comedians and plumbers?
Tax collectors were once reviled. The Beatles sneered at them. “If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat / If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet,” sang George Harrison in his best cynical Scouse trill.
I remember when, if any of the contestants on those oh-so-’80s quiz shows like Play Your Cards Right or 3-2-1 admitted to being a tax collector, there’d be murmurs of disapproval, possibly even a boo or two, in the audience.
In the past, no one uttered the word ‘taxman’ without prefixing it with a colourful adjective. Many a youngster could have been forgiven for thinking that ‘F**king Taxman’ was the official title of the suits who worked at Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs.
How things have changed. Now we’re encouraged to revere the taxman and to hurl metaphorical rotten tomatoes at tax-dodgers. Radical left-wing protesters have bizarrely made themselves into the guerrilla wing of HMRC, the dreadlocked equivalent of those bowler hat-wearing tits with clipboards who once stalked the land looking for tax-avoiders.
Groups like UK Uncut superglue themselves to the shops of billionaires who find ways of avoiding tax, like Philip Green of Topshop fame. They have become the placard-waving, slogan-yelling shock troops of the state’s tax-collecting agencies – the taxman’s attack dogs.
Meanwhile, the media goes mental over anyone remotely rich who dares to dodge tax. When funnyman Jimmy Carr was found to be paying just one per cent tax on his earnings, he was subjected to medieval-style mob hate. The Times plastered his mugshot across its front page. David Cameron condemned him.
The twitterati accused him of killing babies. Seriously. A much retweeted comment by comedian John Robins said: “Why is everyone acting as though Jimmy Carr has killed a baby?! Because babies die in underfunded hospitals.”
Yes, that’s right, if well-off celebs don’t pay their taxes, hospitals will close and CHILDREN WILL DIE. Who can save the little ones? Only the taxman, of course, brave collector of cash for the preservation of the social and moral fabric.
It isn’t only billionaires or rich funny guys feeling the heat of this transformation of tax-collecting into a radical bloodsport, so are everyday folk.
When Tory MP David Gauke said it is “morally wrong” to pay a plumber cash-in-hand, he was taking the tax-collecting frenzy to its logical conclusion. Today, everyone’s moral worth, whether you’re a permatanned billionaire or a bloke in overalls, is judged by his tax antics, by whether he renders unto Caesar what is, allegedly, Caesar’s.
What’s behind the media’s and the middle class’ furious rehabilitation of the taxman and their witch-hunting of tax-dodgers? Two things. First there’s the desire to avoid having a serious, grown-up debate about what is structurally wrong with modern British capitalism, in favour of pinning the blame for the recession on handfuls of allegedly decadent, money-hoarding bad guys.
Incapable of coming up with a serious explanation for the corrosion at the heart of the British economy, the media and activists prefer to scream at 'greedy' people. Apparently it was their avarice, their champagne-swilling, their lust for stuff that propelled Britain into this downturn.
The obsession with tax springs from a spectacularly childish understanding of the crisis, with observers feeling far more comfortable (and puffed-up) railing against individual greed than analysing the political decision-making that precipitated the recession. Tax-dodgers have become scapegoats for a politically clueless political class.
The second driver of the tax obsession is the lack of ambition in modern Britain. The tax-hunting frenzy suggests we now see wealth as a fixed thing, as an unchangeable entity, and this makes us obsessed with redistribution, with getting some of the wealth out of Jimmy Carr’s arse pocket so that it can be used to fund hospitals and prevent kids from dying.
But wealth is not a fixed thing. We could create more wealth. We could grow the economy and in the process improve everyone’s living standard. We could do what the radical suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst once suggested: “Call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all, the people can consume.”
But we don’t. Because we have lost faith in growth, in new wealth creation. So instead we become more and more delirious about hunting down wealth that already exists, and demonising anyone who tries to ‘hide’ it.