Monday, 21 February 2011

Daft as a brush, but just as useful

David Allen Green, lawyer and libel reform campaigner, on "The daftness of UKUncut" (New Statesman):

However, this campaign is misconceived to the very point of daftness. Companies have to comply with the relevant tax regime: they really have no choice. Companies have to pay all tax which is lawfully due. Lawfully due tax cannot be avoided, regardless of ingenuity or greed. Accordingly, if certain companies are not paying enough tax, then the only solution is to improve tax legislation and properly resource its implementation by HMRC.

I can see the logic here but that doesn't mean there's no logic to the UKUncut campaign. This illustrates a typical catch 22 for protesters: any campaign which captures the public imagination enough to be successful will have simplistic aims and will be directed at an easy target several rhetorical meters away from the real cause of the problem. Campaigns which perfectly identify the best solution to a problem, taking into account complex legal or tax issues, as well as a change in regime, will be accurate but largely unnoticed.

This doesn't mean that no protests can be effective, however. The point is to draw attention to a wider, ongoing problem and create enough pressure that something has to give. Any legal changes which result from this will be more subtle and better targeted than the protests themselves. It may be a little unfair on shareholders and customers of a few high street chains in the meantime, but the government set the standard for unfairness in this battle when it started cutting budgets like an axe-wielding maniac.

Look at any revolution in history and you'll find that the most symbolically effective elements were also the least logical. When the creators of the problem are no longer in power, when the ruling party clearly doesn't give a crap about the consequences of its cuts, when those who could make the changes are shrugging their bespoke-suited shoulders or condescendingly explaining the realities of high finance to a population facing job loss, pension losses, pay freezes, benefit cuts, inflation, increased VAT, repossession of their homes...

In the face of all that illogical, "daft" unfairness, you might as well storm the bloody Bastille, if only to get some exercise.


  1. Pretty much with you on this. He's right to point out the 'proper' way of reducing avoidance is to change tax regulations (and the ability of HMRC to enforce them). The whole "not obliged to arrange your affairs such that the Revenue can take the largest cut" thing. He misses that the protests aimed at companies concerned *are* a way of achieving that.

    By all means protest outside the Treasury too, but this is at least as good at sending the message. And it puts pressure on those companies not to lobby too strongly for rules that work in their favour (important, given we can assume this government is fairly amenable to their demands). And more directly, if engaging in the more extreme end of tax avoidance is too damaging to their reputation, then they won't do it. This helps get round the argument about "it's not worth changing the rules because they'll just employ crafty accountants to find loopholes".

  2. And meant to add.. David Allen Green seems to be having a bit of a 'daft' day today, with this and his AV article. Oh, well. At least he's usually sensible...

  3. The AV thing is weird. Green tweeted that he'd argue in an up-coming blog that it gives some people multiple votes. I replied explaining why that argument was wrong. He ignored me. Other people made the same case to him. He ignored them too. I mentioned this in my blog.

    He wrote the article anyway, in New Statesman, describing his silly idea as "impossible to rebut". I commented on it explaining again why he was wrong. Several other people did too. He ignored us again.

    Later, I tweeted that he had indeed used the ridiculous argument I'd said he'd use. He replied: "Charming".

    It's fine to be deliberately controversial, but this is just trolling. To call an argument "impossible to rebut" after several people have rebutted it, specifically to you, in less than 140 characters is the debate tactic of a Daily Mail columnist.