With the London mayoral elections less than a month away and Parliament on recess, capital politics are dominating much of the agenda. Aside from the seemingly Faustian choice many Londoners will make between Boris and Ken (or, you know, one of the other fine candidates), it is the publishing of candidates’ tax returns that has got people talking in the past week.
David Cameron indicated yesterday that he is likely to publish his tax returns, while deputy PM Nick Clegg claimed that “it is a matter of principle that the public has a right to know". Given the commonality of the practice in the US and this government’s outspoken commitment to unprecedented levels of transparency, the petty feud that led the London mayoral candidates to publish their tax details seems merely to have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
Yet the inevitability of this move, and the wholly sensible principle that Clegg outlines, cannot disguise one crucial point: we will achieve next to nothing if, or when, this move becomes a precedent for all future politicians.
Some have argued that prospective political talent will be lost, put off by the potential for mass outrage like that Ken Livingstone faced for his less than charitable dealings with HMRC. Others have decried the ‘slippery slope’ we could be heading down in which politician’s families will likewise be required to reveal all. Clegg has himself suggested the public would not have a right to know his wife’s tax details.
Both are good points, but unfortunately moot. The public have been given a taste and it has whet their appetite, with phone-ins and media coverage only entrenching the inevitability that our current crop of politicians will make their arrangements transparent.
This public pressure, though, does not seem to be driven by a perfectly healthy and understandable desire for the transparency we have been assured is so vital. As Ed Miliband’s taunting of the coalition front bench suggested, and the furore over Ken’s taxes confirmed, the public seem to desire nothing more than to be outraged.
This has at times been most violently expressed through social media reactions to celebrities, but is now seemingly endemic. These faux expressions of disgust are all the more troubling given that the last few years have given us so much to be truly disgusted by: MPs’ expenses, cash for honours, hacking, even the most recent cash for access scandal.
On the one hand the release of politicians’ taxes will reveal which ministers benefitted from the cut in income tax. On the other it will tell us which of them have minimised the amount they have to pay, exploiting the rules to gain the most benefit. Which of us would not contemplate this? Unless motivated by a steadfast belief in the redistribution of wealth - and lets face it there’s a dwindling number of socialists in Parliament - the only reason a politican would realistically pay more in tax than they are required to is because they are a politician, only too aware that the public will be outraged if they are found out. In short, we demand our politicians be just like us, but expect them to live by a different code of behaviour.
As one character noted in US show The West Wing, “if we expect our leaders to live on some higher moral plane than the rest of us, well, we're just asking to be deceived.”
Demanding the public put an end to this crusade for faux outrage would be futile. With a seemingly irreversible trend towards transparency, we will continue to expect those who lead us to live by a different set of moral standards while at the very same time decrying their universal lack of morality. We are, surely, just asking to be deceived.