Can't pay, won't pay

It's right to protest against Glastonbury's headliners.

“If a rich man wants to help the poor," wrote Clement Attlee in 1920, "he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim." On 24 June, protesters will be trying to make this message audible above the din of the crowd at Glastonbury.

A "peaceful direct action" organised by Art Uncut - it's likely to involve a large, shiny banner - will be directed at the headliners U2 as they take the main stage on the Friday evening. With the slogan "Bono Pay Up", the campaign focuses on the tax arrangements of the globe-straddling stadium-rock band. When their native country's government had the temerity to impose a cap of €250,000 a year on tax exemption for artists' royalties, U2 switched their publishing base from Ireland to the Netherlands.

Should we be outraged? After all, Bono, U2's frontman, is known and revered the world over for his selfless devotion to the world's poor, his saintly demeanour outshining that of such religious leaders as the Pope, or Tony Blair, or - oh, all right, I'm being sarcastic. Through philanthropic "global brand" initiatives such as Product Red ("This should feel like hard commerce," the multimillionaire announced at a press conference in 2006), the be-sunglassed smugonaut has long been in the vanguard of capitalism's ideological shock troops, ramming down our throats the idea that the way to alleviate the ­effects of rampant and destructive profit-making lies in further rampant and destructive profit-making.

Not everyone shares this analysis. "U2 consistently do much much more than ANY other band in history to further the cause of the world's poorest," wrote one fan on the Bono Pay Up Facebook page. "This is a seriously misled, idiotic, self-indulgent venture, and selfish beyond belief." I disagree. The anger at Bono is justified: it is completely hypocritical to cast oneself as a great philanthropist while propping up a system in which the super-rich shop around the world for favourable (that is to say, soft) tax regimes.

This isn't just a question of individual morality; it has huge damaging effects. Bono Pay Up throws the spotlight on the developing world. As John Christensen, director of the Tax Justice Network, tells me, tax avoidance is a "catastrophic" problem for the developing world, which loses roughly $160bn each year this way, more than the global aid budget. "It is leading to a situation where countries cannot escape their debt problem. Tax really is the heart of a functional modern economy and a modern state."

Bono is an easy (and fun) target, but that shouldn't obscure Britain's leading role in perpetuating the situation. As Nicholas Shaxson's recent book Treasure Islands showed, the City of London lies at the heart of a global network of satellite tax havens, many of them remnants of the British empire. "People are very unaware of this issue by and large," Christensen says. "I think this protest will potentially make people aware that Britain, far from being a major aid donor to developing countries and being enormously helpful to them, is part of a problem that is of far greater significance."

Ultimately it's you, as well as Bono, that Art Uncut is targeting. The group's founder and co-organiser Philip Goff explains that the aim is to bring about "a culture shift, where people think ethically, rather than just about minimising their tax bill - thinking about what we owe to the country that provides our health service and our education; what's our fair share." Good luck to them. l

On 25 June, Art Uncut will be holding a night of music, comedy and short talks at the Bull and Gate, 389 Kentish Town Road, London NW5. For more details visit:

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.