How Cameron failed developing countries at the G8

From the beginning, the Prime Minister repeatedly failed to show the leadership on tax avoidance and transparency this summit needed.

The G8 meeting was heralded as a unique opportunity to address some of the structural causes of poverty and hunger. It was a chance to both put our own house in order and focus on making a difference to the lives of those in the developing world. Progress was made towards tackling hunger and malnutrition, with substantive funding commitments made by the UK and EU. We also saw a welcome commitment to supporting the UN’s humanitarian appeal for the horrendous crisis in Syria,  which remains staggeringly underfunded. 

David Cameron rightly made tackling tax avoidance and improving transparency a priority. The flawed system of global taxation has a profound impact on not only our revenues but also on the poor in developing countries. The Africa Progress Panel revealed just this week that African countries lose $50bn a year to illicit tax flows. But despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, his efforts fell desperately short in achieving the fundamental changes which are necessary.

It was imperative from the beginning that any G8 agreement should not "lock out" developing countries. However, it is unclear how developing countries will benefit from announcements on sharing tax information and whether they will be involved from the start in the Prime Minister’s new deal. This runs the risk of creating a "two-tier" system which allows advanced economies to benefit from transparency but excludes developing nations.

The Prime Minister also said: "Personally, I want to see the whole world moving towards public registries of beneficial ownership." This would allow all countries to benefit from knowing who owns companies and assets and take a step towards to tackling tax avoidance. It was, then, extremely disappointing and a significant U-turn that the agreements only commit the UK to a private registry of British companies and that no G8 country agreed to create a public register. We need far more than secretive lists in the UK of companies' true owners and vague promises of future action if we are to truly make progress towards ending tax secrecy.

The G8 Communique also includes lots of fine words, particularly on introducing country-by-country reporting for multinational companies and reform to rules which allow companies to shift profits out of developing countries, but no concrete action. Labour has repeatedly called for action on these issues which would enable developing countries to collect the taxes they are due and complement measures to build tax revenue collection capacity in these countries.

The Prime Minister could have used the window of opportunity presented by the G8 summit to deliver real action to tackle tax avoidance, not just for the UK, but for countries around the world.

Instead, from the beginning, he repeatedly failed to show the leadership this summit needed. On putting our own house in order, the government has consistently refused to review UK tax rules relating to controlled foreign companies which the evidence show costs developing countries £4bn a year in lost tax revenue. This is unacceptable.  

He has also been repeatedly criticised, as recently as recently as yesterday by the US, for failing to put in the necessary diplomatic and political work in the weeks and months leading up to the summit to secure meaningful deals on tax transparency. In 2005, the UK used the G8 chairmanship at Gleneagles to achieve the historic promise to increase aid by $50bn by 2010 as well as crucial steps on debt relief and climate change. This shows the magnitude of what can be achieved through ambitious hosting of the G8. But this took significant diplomatic effort and political will.

Sadly, this scale of commitment was largely lacking from the Prime Minister's approach this time around. This G8 could have done for tax and transparency what the 2005 G8 did for aid and debt relief. Instead, away from the hype and spin, when history is written, this summit will be seen as a missed opportunity in the fight against global poverty.

Labour wants to see an end to extreme poverty, a reduction in inequality and an end to aid dependency by 2030. A prerequisite to achieving these objectives will be developing countries having access to fair taxes from their citizens, domestic businesses and multinational companies. David Cameron chose the right priorities for the G8 summit but, as on so many other issues, his fine rhetoric and big promises were not matched by the  conviction or hard work necessary to deliver the radical change that we need. It is to be hoped that the G20 later this year will turn rhetoric and the promise of future action into the commitments we had expected to see. 

Ivan Lewis is the shadow international development secretary

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the conclusion of the G8 summit in the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder