British public life is made up of people who are steeped in the humanities, ignorant of finance and quietly scared by numbers.
From parliament to the BBC, they conflate “offshore” with “illegal”, elide “turnover” with “profit”, and touchingly assume their personal holdings never swing by such exotic jurisdictions.
Outside these unworldly few, there is no great Albion of common sense.
The perceived vulgarity of discussing money ensures that principles are never thrashed out and cant is left to fester unchallenged.
Britons are sure footballers are “overpaid” but accept prices set by supply and demand as generally inviolate.
They hate tax dodgers but pay tradesmen in cash. Almost none of them, even those who own houses worth multiples of the national average, believe they are rich.
Their daily newspapers seethe at the prime minister's banal tax arrangements but lovingly exhibit tricksier schemes in the inside pages, such as semi-undressed celebrities and cassoulet recipes.
It is melodramatic, then, to see
as the patsy in a drumhead trial, victimised by the kind of moral fever
Thomas Babington Macaulay
warned us about, for his stake in a trust that allowed him to neither avoid nor evade British taxes. The truth is better and worse.
When it comes to money, most people just have no idea what they are talking about.
They assume Cameron has done wrong because they have not read or understood the story.
The prime minister is mired in the dog’s breakfast of hearsay and half-understanding, inflamed by the tardy disclosure of his own records last week.
This is not Kafka. If most things in Westminster are cock-ups rather than conspiracy, then so are most things in the country.
The danger lies in the processes and rules of thumb that Britons use in lieu of actual knowledge. Since the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, it has become disturbingly normal to claim that what matters is perception.
“Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”, not just in line with the formal rules. Things must pass the “smell test”.
They must be “fair”. There is a sonorous plausibility to this nonsense.
Fairness vies with community as the most insidious abstract noun in politics. It is plastic enough to mean many things, the darker of which are cloaked by the surface glitter of the word.
A fair tax contribution for billionaires could be defined as something commensurate with the public services they use, which would imply a payment in chicken feed.
It could equally mean a conscientious donation far in excess of the rates levied by the state.
Imagine the fine time we could have assessing the fair tax burden on a state-educated occupant of social housing who sees an NHS doctor every week but earns less than the income tax threshold. Oh, the theories of justice we could weigh against each other.
The reason we have laws is to avoid losing ourselves in this vapour.
If something as arbitrary as fairness is to replace or supplement statute as the guide to behaviour, do not be piqued when Facebook, Twitter and above all Google muster a plausible argument that they should pay little or no tax.
These companies serve billions of people for free. Your Gmail account, your Google searches, your meandering hours on YouTube: none of this costs you anything beyond a monthly broadband fee.
The consumer gains for which this one company extracts no direct charge surely warrants a lighter fiscal burden.
Corporate tax rate
Drug companies that sink fortunes into mostly fruitless research to find life-saving treatments could mount a similar case.
And why is an entrepreneur in a depressed mill town paying the same corporate tax rate as his equivalent in the money pit of London?
Cameron’s noisy crusade against tax avoidance in recent years contributed to this intellectual gloop, which now covers him nose-high.
His decision to release his tax returns, unavoidable in the circumstances, will do the same.
Until now, politicians like everyone else sent their returns to HM Revenue & Customs, which judged them against the rules.
Voters will now judge them against their own moral tariff.
Prime ministers can legislate and administer whatever laws parliament will let through.
But ruminations on matters of taste and morality should be put off until retirement. If that lesson is sinking in, it is sinking in slowly.
Cameron’s otherwise lucid statement to parliament on Monday included a commitment to “change the culture” around tax, as if the culture is any of his business.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)