“I wonder if whoever advised Cameron to comment on Jimmy Carr has realised what they’ve done yet?” tweeted Marina Hyde this morning and most commentators seem to be in agreement that the Prime Minister has been foolish to make a moral pronouncement about a comedian’s tax affairs. It’s certainly a licence for journalists to rake over Tory donors’ tax returns.
But doesn’t the argument about whether or not he’s been politically inept or hypocritical, mask another uncomfortable truth: that he could be right. I understand the argument that it’s wrong for a politician to condemn someone who hasn’t broken the law – but I’m not sure I agree with it. We expect our politicians to make moral judgements, we call them out on it all the time, over issues like health, education, welfare and military intervention. It seems a nonsense to say that when someone has acted legally but in a way that makes them feel morally uncomfortable, our leaders should keep schtum.
Cameron had three options: say what he did; say the opposite (“perfectly legal, done nothing wrong”) – imagine how that would have played – or played the Ed Miliband “but I don’t think it is for politicians to lecture people about morality” card. Good luck with that one at the next PMQs, Ed, because that’s not what you’ve said in the past. Here’s a cracking quote from a Miliband speech last year.
The bankers who took millions while destroying people’s savings: greedy, selfish, and immoral; the MPs who fiddled their expenses: greedy, selfish, and immoral; the people who hacked phones at the expense of victims: greedy, selfish and immoral.
Miliband was right then, just as Cameron was right yesterday.
Of course, hypocrisy litters the story left, right and centre. Various newspaper groups writing about this story employ ways and means to bring down their own tax burden. And there is an issue about where you draw the moral line. Plenty of folk avoid tax everyday, without a moment’s guilt. Pension contributions, ISAs, duty free shopping. Nothing wrong with any of them. But anyone using them is utilising a tax avoidance scheme – does that remove their right to express an opinion about the moral rectitude of rather more complicated and creative pieces of accounting? I don’t think so.
Cameron will undoubtedly live to regret his words about Carr – the newspapers will make sure of that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he was wrong to say it. Does it?