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A financial transactions tax just makes good business sense for Britain

Rather than refusing it to rebuild our casino banks, we should create something new and better.

New Statesman
Not quite a casino bank… Photograph: Getty Images

According to Albert Einstein the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Yet bolstered by today’s improving GDP figures, David Cameron’s government appears set on rebuilding the UK economy around the casino capitalists of the City of London. The financial crisis may have derailed the economy to the extent that as a country we’re still poorer than we were six years ago but let’s just put the old show back on the road again.

This attitude was exemplified by Boris Johnson’s speech to the British Bankers’ Association this week when he invited European banks to come to the UK to avoid the proposed European financial transactions tax (FTT, also knows as a Robin Hood Tax). Nevermind the fact that moving to London would not actually help them evade the tax, the message was clear: the UK wants the same as the financial sector, a return to business (and bonuses) as usual.

Thankfully, MPs on the Business, Innovations and Skills Committee today intruded into the debate calling into question the Government’s position. In their response to the Kay review of UK equity markets and long-term decision making, MPs not only called for the Government to get on with implementing the professor’s recommendations – including a review of merger and acquisition activity – but also called on Cameron and Osborne to think again about their opposition to the FTT.

Their argument does not rest on the moral imperative that the financial sector should repay the damage it has done – something even the Prime Minister and Chancellor are wary of disputing. Instead the Committee makes hard-headed economic arguments for an FTT - that it would curb damaging high frequency trading, the computer-driven casino capitalism that causes flash crashes. It is an argument I have made here previously.

The business case for an FTT is so strong that Vince Cable told MPs that “I am, in some ways, quite disposed to it”. But given the political capital George Osborne and David Cameron have invested in opposing the plans of 11 European countries to press ahead with an FTT, it is difficult to see this Government changing course.

That provides a real opportunity for Labour. Ed Miliband’s themes of "responsible capitalism" and "one nation" could have been adopted with the Robin Hood Tax in mind. What better way of cracking down on the "wild-west" excesses of the market that he condemned in his conference speech two years ago than by levying a tiny tax that will have negligible impact on long-term investment but make financial gambling via high-frequency trading unprofitable?

And what better way of showing that Labour is truly a "one nation party" than by making the Square Mile pay for the damage it has done to the whole of the British economy and at the same time make it less likely that it will be able to wreak such damage in future?

It is hard-headed economic arguments like these which have led the German finance ministry to champion the tax within Europe. And with 11 European countries – including the major economies of France, Germany, Italy and Spain – set to introduce a wide ranging FTT on shares, bonds and derivatives early in 2014, a future Labour government would hardly be leaping into the dark if they followed suit.

Miliband and his Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls have spoken warmly about the Robin Hood Tax and its potential to raise billions to tackle poverty at home and abroad. But like the Government, they have pretended that such a tax must be global (or at least have the support of the US) to work. Given the UK’s own FTT – the 0.5 per cent stamp duty on shares – raises about £3bn annually this is palpable nonsense. It is to be hoped that today’s dose of economic good sense from MPs will encourage them to be a bit bolder.