Just as the students have put the tuition fees hike on the line, with still unpredictable consequences stretching beyond the Thursday vote in the Commons, so UK Uncut have brilliantly exploited public indignation against tax dodgers like the perma-tanned billionaire voluptuary, Philip Green, who use accountancy devices of byzantine complexity to avoid (and sometimes evade) paying taxes due to the UK. They have raised a flag of rebellion which could actually change the government’s policy over the cuts. If a significant proportion of the £70bn a year tax criminally evaded, the £25bn a year tax circuitously avoided, and the further £25bn a year tax regularly uncollected were now to be wrenched away from the grasping greed of these tax dodgers, the whole rationale for Osborne’s spending cuts would evaporate.
UK Uncut haven’t just closed down Topshop in Oxford Street, they’re challenging the way that Britain today thinks about tax avoidance and evasion. Weasel-worded terminology like ‘tax efficiency’ has become (in some quarters) an acceptable proxy for using every artificial complexity the (very rich) accountants can invent to get round paying tax due. A toxic and destructive tax avoidance industry has taken root among the corporate elite that is deeply antagonistic to the British national interest. It needs to be attacked head-on. We need to proclaim the obvious (but disregarded and downplayed) truth that in a democratic society people are duty-bound to pay promptly and in full the tax for which they are properly liable and which enables them to obtain the benefits, protection and support of that democratic society of which they are a member. Any deviation from that social duty should be publicly shamed and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
UK Uncut has now jolted the government into setting up a review into GAAR (a General Anti-Avoidance Rule) which has been left on a back burner for far too long. I promoted it in Parliament a year ago through questions, speeches and an EDM, but it got nowhere. Direct action, as we can see, is far more effective – another indication if we need any how limited Parliamentary accountability has now become. But a review of course is just a time-waster (it’s not as though the government doesn’t already know all the arguments) unless it produces the real thing, a GAAR written into UK law. We need to keep up the pressure. This is a big one, and UK Uncut have broken through an important barrier.