We like to imagine that the entire population is deeply attached to the rule of law: in other words, that arbitrary government is alien to rulers and ruled alike, and that retrospective legislation, say, is repugnant to them as a deep matter of principle. But this is not so: most people have at least one subject on which they would like the rule of law to be abrogated, whether it be trials for rape, human rights or climate change.
It is this, I think, that lies behind the increasing inability of people, even the highly-educated, to distinguish in their minds between tax avoidance and tax evasion. They are so keen to tax the rich – more to deprive them of pleasure or to give them pain than to raise taxes to be spent on useful services – that they think the rule of law need or ought not apply to them. They are thought to be privileged enough without being able to defend themselves at law. ‘The rich are different,’ Scott Fitzgerald is said to have said to Ernest Hemingway, who is said to have replied, ‘Yes, they have more money than us.’ Perhaps he would now answer, ‘Yes, they ought to be fair game.’
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Hammond, said during his budget speech, ‘Since 2010, we have secured £140 billion additional tax revenue by taking robust action to tackle avoidance, evasion and non-compliance.’ He went on: ‘There is more we can do. We will introduce a tough new financial penalty for professionals who enable tax avoidance arrangement that is later defeated by HMRC.’
He could hardly have made his lack of scruple clearer. What ‘robust action’ has been taken against people who have avoided taxes, a perfectly legal if not always laudable thing to do? Blackmail? Threats? These are, implicitly, the words of a gangster, though the person who uttered them may not be aware of it.
The second part of Mr Hammond’s statement is not much better. First the HMRC makes rules that are so arcane and complex that not even people who devote their whole lives to interpreting them can fully understand them. Then what is legal and illegal can only be decided in retrospect, giving much scope for arbitrariness, the dictator’s delight.
I have no special love for the extremely rich. Some whom I have met have struck me as fine people and some as unmitigated swine. The libel laws prevent me from being more specific.