John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, has said that Teresa May and Phillip Hammond’s refusal to release their tax returns is bad for democracy.
While it’s a nice break from his creation of a silent coup plot linked with the Murdoch newspapers that could never be proved either to exist or not to, it’s another seemingly simple statement which seeks to create a narrative that, on the surface, does make sense.
Democracy is ultimately based on transparency. The electorate gets to look at the facts as they are and make decisions based up on them, or at least that’s something like the theory.
So at least on the surface the argument makes sense. Coupled with the oft-used defence of surveillance that if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear it’s almost logical.
Politicians releasing their tax returns allows the masses to scrutinise the affairs of the ‘elite’ and check that they’re following the rules. But what are we actually going to gain from seeing these returns?
Some people might get pleasure from looking at someone else’s affairs and that’s their business, but for the rest of us? Given there are only 350,000 or so registered accountants in the UK, probably not much.
The fact is, most of the public don’t know what a tax return should or shouldn’t look like according to the rules – and will, instead, be looking out for things they think are wrong, suspicious or for figures which – if I was feeling particularly cynical I might suggest they were jealous of.
Just look at what Jeremy Corbyn faced when he quietly released his professionally-prepared return last week: a furore that it was wrong.
I don’t know if it was or wasn’t wrong (although Corbyn-Trump has blamed the MSM for the whole thing), and I don’t much care either.
And that’s because thanks to democracy I don’t have to. Democracy means that I have outsourced individual decisions and specifics to my MP, and Parliament has – through the Government – set up a body to look after these kind of issues.
HMRC, as the organisation set up to collect tax and make sure we’re all paying what we should (under law, not arbitrary morals), is far better placed to decide whether people have got their tax returns right or wrong.
I know, as Mr Gove said during the EU referendum campaign, we’re all sick of experts but surely democracy is far healthier if we trust that the law is being applied by the experts, public discourse is on how to change laws and make things fairer, and we’re not relying on everyone applying arbitrary moral decisions on their political opponents’ affairs on Twitter?