Let’s face it, the classless society is a fantasy, one among many carrots dangled in front of the lumbering masses for encouragement in their slogging travail. The so-called Paradise Papers are just a wrapper around the root vegetable. Does it really come as a shock to find the Queen and Madonna entrusting funds to skillful money-managers for the purpose of saving on taxes? The only salient phrase in all the pullulating news blather on this superfluous topic is that such offshore transactions were “perfectly legal” (i.e. for those still uncertain, they were not illegal). When you’re already paying countless millions in taxes, is it difficult to understand the urge to save as much as possible wherever and however it’s possible to do so? I remember when the Beatles were grumbling about being fleeced for 95% of their income, and George Harrison wrote his marvellous Taxman:
Should five percent appear too small
Be careful I don’t take it all
‘Cos I’m the Taxman
Be careful when you die –
Declare the pennies on your eyes
‘Cos I’m etc. etc.
There is possibly a case to be made for a cap on personal income tax, a ceiling above which you can keep all your money. The shameful grab known as Death Duties also needs to be revised in a more equitable fashion. I was at school with the scion of one of England’s more historic and venerable dukedoms, which endured the worst of all possible scenarios. Two dukes died in quick succession, and so the estate underwent the payment of two sets of death duty. They were asset rich but cash poor, yet the assets, including property, were mostly family heirlooms. A Holbein portrait is not merely a valuable painting when its subject is your ancestor. This family had prime ministers and eminent generals in its line, and therefore many mementoes that were far more than just collectable stuff. The taxmen didn’t care, of course; and to avoid selling everything to pay off their debt, the family ended up gifting their ancient country seat and its contents to the government, in exchange for continuing to occupy a few apartments in it, as well as to supervise the opening of their erstwhile home to the public. This the new duke quite enjoyed, sitting in his booth collecting half-crowns from visitors and signing autographs. Even so, the overhead was steep enough that, before long, they had a wild game park and antique market in the grounds. It should not be hard to comprehend that those faced with this or similar situations will take advantage of every available means to hang onto a little of the wealth by consulting experts in the field. We should not punish success, not even the success of antiquity.
Brits today were risibly horrified to learn that Her Majesty’s offshore investments included shares in a couple of morally questionable enterprises. Does anyone seriously imagine that old Elizabeth sits around with her shady brokers, saying, “Oh, that does seem like a profitable little racket, doesn’t it? I think we should buy in!” She’s probably never even met the men who deal with the men who advise on investments – and as long as the advice seems good she probably doesn’t want to know about any of its boring machinations. At 90, after a lifetime of dutiful service to an undeserving rabble, she ought to be spared the aggravation. Yes, those investing on behalf of the monarchy should be a little more cautious what they invest in than they would be for, say, Madonna, but at the end of the day they did nothing illegal – so why don’t we shut up about it!
Supposedly there are 3,300 Canadians whose financial affairs have been unethically exposed to public scrutiny by this leak of private documents. These people too have done nothing illegal. But, like allegations of sexual harassment, being on this list is treated as if it’s proof of tax-evasion and some other species of financial skullduggery. The allegation alone is enough – and this is not good for the world. The recent revelation of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s surprising wealth was similarly treated by hypocritical bleats from the opposition parties – as if the very fact of having millions were in itself conclusive proof of malfeasance. No doubt those politicians past and present now mentioned in the Paradise Papers – mentioned for doing nothing illegal – will be pilloried in a similar fashion, until the public, curtesy of the media, loses interest in the subject. I should not want my financial affairs made available to all and sundry – if only for their embarrassing paucity. But like poverty, though, wealth ought not to be a cause for shame. It is of course the cause of jealousy – and that is really at the root of these half-baked non-news stories. Those puerile anarchic elements who imagine this latest non-expose will usher in a golden age of egalitarian reforms will be left griping about conspiracies of the wealthy and the unfairness of it all, as the rest of us sail into the sunset of yet another year. Does the ever-tardy Revolution even remember the Panama Papers, that considerably more damning deluge of documents about which nothing was also done? It’s lonely up on the apex of the social pyramid, looking down at all the shaking fists and rattling billhooks – yet one must assume it has its consolations. I am reminded of an old joke that Christopher Hitchens used to tell, bless him:
An American student revisits his old professor at Oxford. The professor asks him what he’s up to now. “I’m finishing my Ph.D. thesis on the survival of the ruling class in America,” says the student.
“Oh,” says the professor, “I thought there wasn’t supposed to be a ruling class in America anymore?”
“No one does,” says the boy. “That’s how it survives…”
Paul William Roberts