David Cameron, the Panama Papers & Old Corruption

In Uncategorized on April 14, 2016 by kmflett

David Cameron, the Panama Papers & Old Corruption


David Cameron has been caught up in the furore following the publication of the Panama Papers. These leaked documents connected important people around the globe with doubtful financial arrangements, often funds held in offshore bank accounts to avoid payment of tax.

So far the Prime Minister of Iceland has been forced to step down. Others may follow.

Mr Cameron’s late father Ian was involved in the practice, but whether the Prime Minister himself benefited led Downing St to issue 4 statements in 24 hours attempting to ‘clarify’ matters.

Even if Mr Cameron has benefited in the past from offshore accounts he will probably have done nothing illegal. It is rather a moral issue about whether or not senior elected politicians should be paying taxes on their income as they expect everyone else to do.

It is here that the term Old Corruption has relevance.

It does not refer necessarily to personally corrupt practices but rather to a political system that is corrupted from its apparent values.

The term was originally publicised by the radical Tory farmer and writer William Cobbett and he used it to refer to Government practices in the unreformed pre-1832 Parliament and Government.

Cobbett’s critique of how people came to be appointed to office and benefited from it was a moral not an economic one. He was challenging the way the system was run, not the basis of the system. Far from all of Cobbett’s views were progressive but his denunciation of sinecures and placemen was effective.

There the matter might have rested had not the late socialist historian E.P Thompson made a good deal of the term Old Corruption in his writings in the 1960s.

Thompson saw, as people do with Mr Cameron now, that protestations of democracy and accountability in the political system were more for show than they were to be taken seriously in practice.

In the Peculiarities of the English (1965), Thompson explained why the practice of Old Corruption caused such resentment in the late eighteenth century:

‘it alienated the sisters and the cousins and the aunts of those who had not obtained preferment, the officers who had not been promoted, the clergy who had not found patrons, the contractors who had not obtained orders, the talented who had been passed over, the wives who had been snubbed’.

We can see here how it is that the term applies to Mr Cameron now.

People who have little choice but to pay their taxes and may in many cases see positive benefit to society  in so doing, query why it is that the Prime Minister, because of his social position and who he was related to, may have been able to benefit at some point from not having to pay taxes.

Of course Mr Cameron could easily address this matter by publishing his tax returns and indeed cracking down on tax havens many of which are one way or another British dependencies.

The fact that he has not so far done so suggests that the words of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell are pertinent. He has suggested that far from this being an embarrassing aberration, avoidance of tax for wealthy Tories is a way of life and one reason why they remain well-off generation after generation.

All in it together then? Again it would seem not.

Perhaps we should leave the last word to William Cobbett. In Rural Rides he was clear who caused problems for the working poor: ‘..placemen, soldiers, parsons, fundholders, tax gatherers’. That is people like Mr Cameron who grow rich from the hard work of others

This post appeared in the Morning Star 14th April


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