The cautionary tale of the 79-year-old tax dodger

How much of George Osborne's pledge to cut tax evasion is chest-thumping?

UK chancellor George Osborne has unveiled a budget full of detail on government plans to crack down on tax evasion. The UK government has been banging its drum for some time on the topic, but now it’s released some firm detail on what it intends to do, and in particular its offshore strategy. The question is how much of this is chest-thumping and what will it actually mean?

Here, like in many other areas, it’s useful to see what the US is doing and it’s clear that the UK has taken its lead from across the Pond. The US has had significant success putting the fear into US citizens with assets abroad. The US Internal Revenue Service has netted more than $5bn in back taxes, interest and penalties since 2009. This included the conviction of a 79-year-old former offshore account holder, Mary Estelle Curran, who was fined $21m having failed to report tax of $667,716 on her undeclared offshore accounts (although the accounts did hold $41m so she wasn’t left destitute by the fine!). The HMRC has outlined plans to use similar name and shame tactics to get the desired result.

The message the government and HMRC are trying to send is clear: the government is doing its worst to be a big bad monster and force tax-dodgers to quake in their boots and fess up. The government says it will ‘name and shame’ not only avoiders, but those who help them all – or as David Cameron referred to them in Davos earlier this year: “the travelling caravan of lawyers, accountants and financial gurus”. The aim is to bring in an extra £4.6bn in taxes over the next five years and the tax exchange agreements recently agreed with Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are expected to bring in more than £1bn of that over the same period.

This seems like a modest amount, and it would be entirely realistic to see this figure edge higher. According to global wealth consultancy WealthInsight the amount of offshore funds held in the UK and Channel Islands by local clients’ stands at about £515bn. Osborne’s figure of £1bn is, therefore, a tiny drop in this ocean of offshore money.

However it’s important to remember that this kind of rhetoric about tax dodgers is not new. Governments have been talking about it for the past seven years, although it’s only now that the regulatory machinery has caught up. There’s little doubt the smart money has already moved to become transparent – those caught in the coming years are likely to be those without Cameron’s ‘caravan’ of sophisticated advisers.

Still it’s important not to underestimate to what lengths the tax authorities will go to claw back revenue. Since 2010 the HMRC has spent £1bn on tax gathering including employing an extra 2,500 staff by 2014-15. And the HMRC is not just targeting high flyers; it recently released a list of evaders who had avoided £25,000 or more. The writing is on the wall. The government coffers need any penny they can scrape together and the HMRC is set to go to what may seem like extreme lengths to claw back all it can get from its taxpayers, at home and abroad.

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images
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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era