The David Cameron Tax Haven Peepshow is such an ironyfest it is hard to know where to start. Ministers who used the teenage scribblings of Ed Miliband’s (war hero) father to question the Labour Party’s commitment to national security now claiming parental exploits are off limits. Papers who parade the personal lives of celebrities across their front pages arguing that it is legality not morality which should be of interest. Right wing commentators reduced ad absurdum to comparing buying a bottle of wine in duty free with squirrelling away millions off shore. The Tory spin machine, having fought to stop the truth being published for the last week, now trying to position David Cameron as the whistle-blowing avant-gardist of tax transparency. Conservative Brexiters agonising over whether attacking their leader will turn the whole party toxic or just him. But my (least) favourite was yesterday when I caught Fraser Nelson arguing that Cameron could no more help being born rich then poor people could help being born poor and that we should understand he was only defending his father.
I tried to imagine how I would feel if my mother had marked what she considered to be my transition to adulthood not with a curry in a local Indian (the legendary and recently closed Rupali in the Bigg Market) and some unwelcome relationship advice (which in any case I did not follow) but by announcing she was giving me shares in her offshore tax haven.
I failed totally. It meant envisioning my mother had been able to set aside money from the struggle for survival which most of her life entailed. That, in addition, she had the energy, on top of what it took simply to make ends meet, to figure out the most ‘tax efficient’ way to ensure that money made more money for her family, friends and associates. That, rather than worrying about the impact losing my child benefit would have on a household income already depleted by her disability, she had focused on how to reduce my tax exposure in the decades to come.
It is simply not possible for me to imagine what an upbringing shorn of the worry of paying basic bills is like and how in that context tax havens and family trusts may be viewed. And, as I have come to realise since entering parliament, that is a failing on my part. Because like it or not, it is the people whose parents were in that position, who attended Eton or schools like it, and whose family financial discussions did not revolve around how to pay the electricity bill (unless of course the family home was a draughty castle). It is these people who, largely, hold the power in the different sections of society which control most peoples’ lives and who are then called upon to speak for the rest of us in the closed chamber which all too often is the national conversation. It is a handicap I share with many Labour MPs, though time spent at the same universities or the same (social) parties can help overcome it.
But if that is a failing in my understanding, think of what the inverse represents. They have to make the same impossible leap of imagination to understand the lives of those for whom tax havens, trust funds and private schools are not the daily reality. And whilst my inability to imagine their lives is a barrier between me and say 7% of the country at most, their failing builds a barrier with the remaining 93%. Otherwise known as the people of this country.
That is what the Panama Papers are ultimately about. I am not saying that wealth or an Eton education are a bar on holding public office. Clearly the opposite appears to be the case. But they are a barrier to understanding – as opposed to manipulating – the lives of the vast majority of people in this country. That is why steelworkers are left to face the unmitigated effects of free global markets whilst those much better able to, in terms of wealth and social assets, are protected by a network of privilege.
Of course the disadvantages of a narrow, elite and wealthy upbringing can be overcome, just as being surrounded by the rich and powerful might one day lead to me understanding them. Hell, even becoming one of them – God forbid.
But the disadvantages of privilege are unlikely to be unlearnt in the Bullingdon Club, the PR Lobby or the current Tory party. If the public associate privilege with the shady & offshore than David Cameron has nowhere else to go.
That is why David Cameron is so desperate to halt the slow drip of information. He knows he has vast reserves of privilege still to be tapped.