Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Layer 398 . . . Dumb Old Gits, Veils of Secrecy, Nailing the Messenger, Tax Dodging, Brilliant Protests and a Civilised Society


Following yesterday's comments about the positive levels of emotional intelligence among our young cricketers, today we heard news of a couple of ex-cricketers behaving badly. Ian Botham and Ian Chappell; looking to have a fight in a car park.

According to a 'source' : "They went for each other all right and it could have got very nasty if there hadn't been people on hand to keep them apart.

"They reacted quickly because we all know the history between these two. They might be aged 55 and 67, but neither of them are the type of people to give an inch in the face of conflict." 


Julian Assange
, he of Wikileaks fame, was today remanded in custody in the UK.

Julian Assange denied bail


Live with the WikiLeakable world or shut down the net. It's your choice

Western political elites obfuscate, lie and bluster – and when the veil of secrecy is lifted, they try to kill the messenger

by John Naughton

'Never waste a good crisis" used to be the catchphrase of the Obama team in the runup to the presidential election. In that spirit, let us see what we can learn from official reactions to the WikiLeaks revelations.

The most obvious lesson is that it represents the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet. There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.

The response has been vicious, co-ordinated and potentially comprehensive, and it contains hard lessons for everyone who cares about democracy and about the future of the net.

There is a delicious irony in the fact that it is now the so-called liberal democracies that are clamouring to shut WikiLeaks down.

Consider, for instance, how the views of the US administration have changed in just a year. On 21 January, secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech about internet freedom, in Washington DC, which many people welcomed and most interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyberattack on Google. "Information has never been so free," declared Clinton. "Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable."

She went on to relate how, during his visit to China in November 2009, Barack Obama had "defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity." Given what we now know, that Clinton speech reads like a satirical masterpiece.

One thing that might explain the official hysteria about the revelations is the way they expose how political elites in western democracies have been deceiving their electorates.

What WikiLeaks is really exposing is the extent to which the western democratic system has been hollowed out. In the last decade its political elites have been shown to be incompetent (Ireland, the US and UK in not regulating banks); corrupt (all governments in relation to the arms trade); or recklessly militaristic (the US and UK in Iraq). And yet nowhere have they been called to account in any effective way. Instead they have obfuscated, lied or blustered their way through. And when, finally, the veil of secrecy is lifted, their reflex reaction is to kill the messenger.

As Simon Jenkins put it recently in the Guardian, "Disclosure is messy and tests moral and legal boundaries. It is often irresponsible and usually embarrassing. But it is all that is left when regulation does nothing, politicians are cowed, lawyers fall silent and audit is polluted. Accountability can only default to disclosure." What we are hearing from the enraged officialdom of our democracies is mostly the petulant screaming of emperors whose clothes have been shredded by the net.

Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they shut down the internet. Over to them.

These brilliant protests on tax-dodging can unite us all

by Polly Toynbee

What a clever, well-targeted protest. When the whistle blew and the protesters emerged from among milling shoppers perusing handbags and hats, it took just a few hundred people to shut down Philip Green's flagship branch of Topshop, in London's Oxford Street – and 22 other stores in his empire around the country. Summoned by Twitter, the UK Uncut movement brings together an instant army, peaceful, good-natured and witty in its songs and chants. For a while they stopped Green's tills ringing on the year's busiest shopping Saturday.

Though some shoppers were irritated, many were supportive and a few joined in. No surprise there: tax-dodging by the rich angers most people, more so if the law allows it while everyone else pays their PAYE. That is what makes this campaign brilliant. It is not a special interest protest – though there will be plenty of those. Everyone has an interest when corporations employ accountants like KPMG or PwC to manufacture fiendish plans for (legally) avoiding tax that could pay for the universities or Sure Starts now being savaged.

It is no coincidence that the government today hurried out a "clampdown" on tax avoidance. Would that have happened if the UK Uncut protests that have shut down Vodafone stores over the last month hadn't prodded the Lib Dems into remembering that "tackling avoidance" was written into their coalition agreement?

Philip Green, quite legally, put the ownership of his Arcadia empire into his wife's name in Monaco and paid her £1.2bn, tax free. (If only some gigolo would sweep Lady Green off her feet and so make off with all her husband's untaxed billions). Arcadia is not some flighty finance company, easy to base anywhere: its money is earned in UK high streets from British pockets and the law could make it pay British tax – as it should Cadbury, whose profits Kraft is moving to tax haven Switzerland.

As the Guardian's 14-part Tax Gap investigation revealed last year, respectable FTSE 100 companies and great British brands are fleecing taxpayers of billions. Even in the boom years when profits swelled, the proportion of tax paid by big companies fell: a third on the FTSE 100 paid no tax in 2005-6, with the help of byzantine avoidance practices. A great destructive industry wasting the nation's best legal and accountancy brains is pitted against HMRC.

How do you create culture change? How do you shame companies out of such practices when governments are frightened of their power? Polling evidence suggests that Vodafone has already taken a reputational hit as a result of these protests. Crashing and banging saucepan lids, whistle-blowing and rude chants against companies works where years of pamphlets, meetings and earnest debates cut no ice.

This week there are daily protests: women were outside the high court today against a budget that cuts 72% from women; tomorrow schools and sports celebrities protest against the axing of the school sports budget; Wednesday and Thursday see two days of student protest. This has hardly begun. Wait for the rest in next year's great post-April shock. The knack is for protesters to stand on principle and on the side of the public: students are protesting against cuts that hit their successors, not themselves. Everyone is affected by tax dodgers whose lost funds could cover the deficit.

Labour has a history to live down. Until last year, prodded by German action on Lichtenstein, it was pusillanimous on avoidance. Peter Mandelson's famously laconic line about being "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" had a rider – "as long as people pay their taxes".

But Labour didn't chase the filthy rich avoiders either: Britain is responsible for 10 tax havens that should be shut down. No official opposition can support direct action, but those close to Ed Miliband challenged the CBI view: "Tackling avoidance is not incompatible with a business friendly environment if done in the right way." Most people who ever voted Labour or Lib Dem are likely to support a crackdown: there is nothing scarily leftwing about fair tax collection. It is the price for a civilised society.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave a comment