If, like me, you are deeply disappointed by all those who have accepted honours in the New Year Honours List, especially those who unctuously say that they only accepted on behalf of their profession, community, hard working employees etc, here is a list of some of those who declined knighthoods in the past.
Alan Bennett playwright
Albert Finney actor
E M Forster author
Michael Frayn playwright and author
Stephen Hawking physicist
Muhammed Ali Jinnah Founder of Pakistan
L S Lowrey artist
Humphrey Lyttelton musician
Aldous Huxley author
Keith Hill Labour MP
George Bernard Shaw playwright
Alastair Sim actor
H G Wells author
Let’s salute them and all the other men and women who have declined honours of every kind. May their numbers grow and their refusal to be ‘honoured’ come to be seen as more honourable than accepting a title or gong.
The Public Accounts Committee’s report on the failings of HMRC begs the question whether, as currently constituted, it is actually fit for purpose. The payment of tax in Britain by the super-rich and transnational corporations is now largely voluntary, and TNCs like Google and Starbucks comply with our tax rules only when it suits them. The revolving door between HMRC and the ‘big four’ accountancy firms, who recruit former tax inspectors to secure their expertise and regularly advise HMRC on the formulation of tax policy, leaches privileged knowledge and undermines effective tax collection. As soon as one abusive tax avoidance scheme is closed by HMRC, then another emerges. Up to 40% of the annual UK finance bill deals with such schemes, a huge waste of public resources.
The tax avoidance problem has been compounded in recent years by a significant re-structuring programme at HMRC. This switched its focus from tax collection to ‘customer relationship management’, particularly for the bigger corporations. This fundamental operational change lies behind the recent ‘sweetheart deals’ with major transnational corporations which have saved them billions in unpaid taxes and short-changed the Exchequer. To do its job effectively, HMRC needs to be effectively tasked and properly resourced. It makes no sense to cut the part of government that brings money in. Increasing resources would clearly deliver significant results: HMRC professionals bring-in as much as twenty times their employment cost.
Allied with the introduction of a robust General Anti-Avoidance Rule, as proposed recently by Michael Meacher, and radical steps to close tax havens, this would give HMRC a fighting chance. Tax evasion and avoidance in the UK is a serious problem, which requires a serious solution. As the late Ken Gill said, “You pay tax and you buy civilisation.”
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has just published a report which concludes that the days when each generation could expect to be better off than their predecessors is ending, as living standards decline for those born after 1960. This will come as no surprise to those struggling with real-term pay cuts, benefit reductions and above-inflation increases in food, rent, travel costs and utility bills. But the publication of the report comes at a difficult time for the Government given the palpable growth of inequality in today’s Britain.
The significant decline in the proportion of national income going to wages since the 1970s as capital rakes-in an ever larger slice of GDP; the explosion in house prices since the 1980s, following the deregulation of the banking sector and the easy availability of credit, leading to speculation and a growing disconnect between house prices and average wages; and the steady erosion of pensions as employers shift the risk from themselves to workers and the government refuses to support a decent state pension all indicate the depth of the problem.
In his magisterial history ‘The Age of Revolution’, Eric Hobsbawm referred to the French liberal economist Henri Baudrillart, who described the formal recognition of inequality as one of the three pillars of human society – the others were property and inheritance. The Conservative-led Government clearly shares this perspective and would dearly love to return us to Victorian levels of inequality. As the next election approaches, there’s an increasingly shrill note to its efforts to destroy the welfare state, undermine trade unions and demonise the poor. But we still have 17 months to go till we reach the election. They can do a lot of damage in that time as they pursue a ‘slash and burn’ approach to the many political and social gains made by the working class since 1945.
Socialists understand the true nature of the Tory project and the dangers inherent in the current crisis of political representation, where Labour are content to offer little more than an ‘austerity-lite’ version of Con-Dem policies. But there’s hard work to be done to raise awareness of the issues across broader society. Let’s be in no doubt: Britain needs a genuine socialist alternative to this venal, parasitic ruling class!