Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Will Darling be daring?

What was the greatest achievement of John Major’s government? Against admittedly feeble competition from Black Wednesday, the Maastricht Treaty and the cones hotline, the answer surely has to be the creation of the National Lottery; a tax which achieved regressive perfection by confiscating money from the thickest and poorest members of society, and splurging it on toff-friendly projects like the construction of art galleries and the refurbishment of opera houses.

Ah, you may object, but the Lottery isn’t technically a tax because participation in it is voluntary. Oh yeah? Well, show me a compulsory tax, then. Inheritance tax has long been an optional charge on middle class types who are too inept or badly advised to order their affairs to avoid it. Tobacco and alcohol duties are only paid by those of us who cannot find the time or energy to hire a white van. And it has become horribly clear of late that the super-rich “non-domiciles” have found ways of avoiding such inconveniences as income and capital gains taxes, too.

As Leona Helmsley famously put it, before they sent her to a Federal penitentiary, “Only the little people pay taxes.”

Almost no-one would want to go back to the days of Denis Healey, the would-be pip-squeaking squeezer of the rich. But as a fairly little person myself (at any rate in Leona’s sense), I rather approve of the efforts to make the plutocrats pay a bit more. The snag, I am told, is that they will all clear off to Zurich or Dublin and take a large chunk of our economy with them. Apparently “good riddance” is not a responsible answer.

So the challenge for Alistair Darling in his first (and, on current form, last) Budget must be to find an equivalent of the National Lottery for billionaires; a tax which they will actually queue up to pay. A million quid a ticket, and prizes such as hereditary peerages, holidays in royal palaces or long-term loans of Old Masters from the National Gallery, perhaps?

Alternatively, he could claim his place in history by defying his organ grinder and announcing a truly radical overhaul of the entire tax system based on the following simple principles: taxes should be low, transparent, consistent and, above all, compulsory.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant, and much too lazy to be a tax evader.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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