Usain Bolt is wrong to oppose our tax laws

The sprinter won't compete in Britain again because he doesn't want to pay more tax.

Amid the drama of the Jamaican team's world record time in the 100m relay, which I was fortunate enough to witness in person, few noted Usain Bolt's post-race comments on tax. Asked why he did not compete in Britain more often (he refused to appear at Crystal Palace in 2010, for instance), Bolt cited our tax laws. "As soon as the law changes I'll be here all the time," he said.

Bolt's objection is to a law that allows the government to take a cut of his sponsorship and endorsement earnings as well as his appearance fee, which is currently taxed at 50 per cent. For instance, were he to take part in 10 meetings worldwide, with one in Britain, the Inland Revenue would tax him on 10 per cent of his worldwide sponsorship earnings. None of which is objectionable. Without tax funded events such as those in Britain, Bolt, who earns around £10m a year, would have no platform on which to perform and, consequently, no sponsorship. Those countries that don't tax non-resident sports people, as Britain does, should do.

The law was waived for the Olympics at the behest of the IOC (one wonders if we would have seen Bolt otherwise) and the government is now under pressure to permanently suspend it. But given the revenue it would lose from those athletes who do grace us with their presence, it is understandably reluctant to do so. Instead, it is Bolt who should reverse his stance and accept that it is legitimate for him to pay a proportion of his worldwide earnings to the British government. After all, having spending £9bn on the Olympics, we could do with the money.

Bolt's management complain that "his tax liability in the UK would exceed his appearance fee". Yet if true, that is only because his sponsorship earnings are so exorbitant to begin with. In any case, is it utopian to hope that athletes might be motivated by something other than money?

Update: Here's what the Treasury had to say on the subject in this year's Budget.

HMRC will revise its practice on the taxation of non-residents sports people to take training days into account when calculating the proportion of worldwide endorsement income subject to UK tax.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt reacts after winning the men's 200m Olympics final. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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