David Cameron’s finances touched a nerve – tax openness is the answer
Nearly half of people say the Prime Minister’s handling of his finances was ‘morally repugnant’, according to our opinion poll, and they support public tax returns for all
As the fallout from the fallout from the Panama Papers leak begins to settle, the Prime Minister is left contemplating the damage to his, and his party’s, reputation. Our ComRes opinion poll today finds that 52 per cent of people say David Cameron has failed to be “honest and open” about his financial affairs – 31 per cent say he has been honest and open and 17 per cent don’t know. What is worse for him, 44 per cent feel strongly enough to say that his management of his financial affairs has been “morally repugnant” – the phrase used by George Osborne, the Chancellor, to condemn tax evasion and “aggressive” tax avoidance in 2012.
That is stronger language than The Independent has been prepared to use in this case. Our view is that Mr Cameron should ideally have declared his shares in his father’s offshore trust in the Register of Members’ Interests until he sold them in 2010, before he became Prime Minister, but that his failure to do so was hardly a hanging offence. Minimising tax was a minor motive for Blairmore Holdings’s offshore status, which could not remotely have been described as aggressive tax avoidance.
However, our poll reveals the depth of suspicion about politicians, and particularly about rich Tories. It found that 59 per cent of voters agree that “the Conservative Party only represents the interest of the rich”, an 8-point increase since we last asked the question three years ago.
That is a shift that ought to alarm the Prime Minister, especially in the run-up to a referendum on Europe that is being presented – unfairly – as a choice between the interest of the pro-EU rich business elite and of the rest of us. EU membership is just as much in the interest of the poor and the public sector.
Naturally, public opinion is complex to the point of mild hypocrisy, in that Mr Cameron is also favoured by voters when asked who, of five political leaders, they would most like to have manage their own financial affairs – 36 per cent named him, against 19 per cent each for Mr Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland.
However, the voters also support radical changes that tend to be considered beyond the pale by the establishment. Despite press mockery of Mr Corbyn for his “imperialist” suggestion that the UK should assert direct control over Crown dependencies and Overseas Territories to stop them being used as tax havens, 72 per cent of the British people support the idea. Mr Cameron claims that he is going as fast as he can towards transparency in these territories, with the consent of their populations, but it would be no bad thing if this poll kept up the pressure.
Most surprising, perhaps, was that almost half of British voters, 49 per cent, agree that “the tax returns of all citizens should be published”, as they are in Norway, Sweden and Finland, with only 31 per cent disagreeing. This marks a big shift in a national culture that has long been jealous of the privacy of the individual, not just against the state but against his or her fellow citizens.
It makes sense, though. Some senior politicians have published their tax returns, but not others, with no rationale for disclosure or non-disclosure. Boris Johnson seems to have published his because he regards himself as a candidate prime minister – and because he did when he was running for re-election as London Mayor in 2012. Chuka Umunna, a Labour back-bench MP, has published his just because he believes in openness. Ultimately, either everyone should do be required to do it, or no one should. The Independenthas always been prejudiced in favour of openness, and so if that is the choice, we prefer disclosure for all.
Full disclosure would not be a miracle cure for the distrust of politicians or for the suspicion of the elite. It is sometimes argued that trust in politicians is higher in Scandinavia because everyone’s tax returns are public, but the direction of causation is not obvious. Nor would publishing tax returns, by definition, tell us much about tax evasion and avoidance. But openness is better than secrecy, and in years to come everyone’s tax returns will be public.