Glimpses into the obvious: Paradise, a taxing issue

Swan, Robert John, 1888-1980; William Cowper (1731-1800), Poet

Robert John Swan, William Cowper (copy of George Romney): The Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire
(‘Home life, he thought, was a bit of leftover Eden’: Alexandra Harris, ‘My Hero: William Cowper’, )

In 1953, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to her friend Leonard Bacon about having visited the poet William Cowper’s house the previous summer. ‘I wish someone would write a sensible book about Cowper’, she added, ‘David Cecil’s, that is considered so sensitive and sympathetic, is really shockingly sloppy, and filled with what my grandmother called glimpses into the obvious.’[1]

A useful phrase, its variant—‘stating the bleeding obvious’—used to be uttered frequently in the office as we reviewed the day’s news. We are belaboured with it constantly now, as earnest newsreaders inform us for the very first time that the Brexit negotiations are not going well, that the government is in chaos and that some Americans are not fervent admirers of the 45th President of the United States.

But another feature of news presentation, especially in the case of the BBC, is the nervous rush to offset any implied criticism of government policy in a report by following it immediately with a vacuous statement by an official spokesperson, claiming billions of pounds in extra funding here, the creation of thousands of skilled posts there and the imminent arrival everywhere of miraculous deliverance strapped to the backs of unicorns.

Exposed to the latest bulletins detailing the contents of the Paradise Papers, I was repeatedly reminded that ‘this is legal’, that there was ‘no suggestion of wrongdoing’, that a yawning legal gulf existed between ‘evasion’ and ‘avoidance’. I had constantly to distinguish between, on the one hand, rich greedy people who paid others to engage in grubby deals for the purpose of helping them dodge their fair share of tax and, on the other hand, rich greedy people who paid others to engage in grubby deals for the purpose of helping them dodge their fair share of tax. Some of them just wanted more money, more yachts, more properties, more trinkets; others wanted even more gargantuan profits for their companies, while yet others wanted to pursue such expensive political projects as influencing a referendum or an election.

Martin, John, 1789-1854; The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

John Martin, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise: Laing Art Gallery. Newcastle-upon-Tyne

As John McDonnell wrote a few days ago, this ‘is not about a few individuals seeking to undermine the system, it is the system.’

Given the obvious social, economic and cultural damage caused by individuals and corporations not paying the taxes that they should, the reasonable response to ‘this is legal’ would seem to be: ‘Why?’ Similarly, the reasonable response to ‘I am not concerned with the day to day running of the company’ is ‘Then you bloody well should be’. If shedloads of money are being shovelled in your particular direction, there is surely a requirement to know where it comes from or at least, where it doesn’t come from.

Nearly a century and a half ago, John Ruskin (‘a violent Tory’) wrote: ‘Whereas, in true justice, the only honest and wholly right tax is one not merely on income, but property; increasing in percentage as the property is greater. And the main virtue of such a tax is that it makes publicly known what every man has, and how he gets it.’[2]

Publicly known: how much and how acquired. That seems about right.


[1] Letter of 11 January 1953: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 138. The Stricken Deer or The Life of Cowper (1929) was Cecil’s first published book (of more than thirty) and a winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

[2] John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, new edition, four volumes (Orpington & London: George Allen, 1896), I, 142; see I, 188: ‘I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school’.


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