I was pleased to see that last weekend’s FT published a letter that I was prompted to write after reading an article by Martin Sandbu.
Mr Sandbu argued in favour of wholesale disclosure of politicians’ financial details, an idea set in train by David Cameron and his notion that tax returns should be made public.
I don’t agree with this at all. To me, this is a classic case of failing to ensure that ethical standards apply in the first place. My letter is reproduced below; do please let me – and the FT – know what you think.
Martin Sandbu’s argument in favour of wholesale public disclosure of tax affairs (FT of 14/15) is not only flawed but misses the point.
It is risible to suggest that politicians forfeit any right to privacy merely because they acquire office. Politicians forfeit the right to behave hypocritically, and they have to attain standards of propriety that are higher than those of the average citizen, but they do not abandon the right to a private life – that which is enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and, thanks to the Human Rights Act 1998, in Britain’s jurisdiction too. A politician’s financial affairs are just as private as his or her sexual, medical and familial history – or does Mr Sandbu contend that these should be made public, too?
Moreover, there are practical issues arising from the notion that all of us, from politicians to white van drivers, should be compelled to disclose our tax affairs. The culture of envy has already advanced to a pernicious degree in Britain. The last thing we need is to set in train yet more scrutiny and discontent; to avoid this, those who can – politicians, especially – will simply spend more time and money engaging a raft of highly paid professional advisers to make palatable their affairs for a holier-than-thou media.
The essential point, though, is one of trust. As a society we need to give our trust based on a politician’s competence to govern and the policies and public values which he or she espouses. We will not recover our faltering trust in politicians or the system by having yet another tick box system which draws HMRC needlessly into the political fray. A squeaky clean tax compliance chit is not a substitute for behaving ethically in the first place.
The image comes courtesy of the United Nations Ethics Office – but how many of us even know such a thing exists?