Oh, the irony! David Cameron, who in 2012 declared tax avoidance schemes ‘morally wrong’, has been found to have profited from an offshore trust which paid no UK tax. Unless you’ve recently returned from the surface of the moon this will not be news to you. Newspapers, social media, and TV news have been dominated by the revelations of the Panama Papers, which document the use of offshore tax havens by the rich and powerful. Iceland’s PM Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson has been forced to resign after the Papers brought his offshore investments to light but calls for Cameron to follow suit have fallen on deaf ears.
There have been two distinct responses from the British pubic to the news about Cameron’s tax affairs, and both are as depressing as the revelations themselves. The first, and arguably more common, response has been to shrug our shoulders and carry on with our lives; after all, we probably expected as much from the economic and political elite. Many of us have long suspected that there’s ‘one rule for the rich’ and another for everyone else and consigned ourselves to that reality. Taking this pessimistic view here though, means accepting the lies and hypocrisy of a PM and a government which most of us did not even vote for. Such apathy only perpetuates the general public feeling of powerlessness.
The other major response, in complete contrast, has been wildly optimistic. Buoyed by the resignation of Iceland’s PM, twitter users across Britain have been demanding #ResignDavidCameron and the People’s Assembly have held a number of demonstrations in Westminster urging the same. There are however, significant differences between the allegations against Cameron and Gunnlaugsson. The former Icelandic PM was still hiding money offshore when the Panama Papers were released whereas Cameron sold his offshore shares six years ago. Furthermore, the cataclysmic collapse of the Icelandic banks means the revelations struck a particular nerve there. Whilst neither of these change the morality of Cameron’s actions, they diminish the political pressure he faces and mean he is highly unlikely to resign.
The best response to the Panama Papers is to take the opportunity to pursue meaningful change to tax laws and prevent future tax avoidance. Greater public awareness and anger about the use of tax havens, brought about by the Papers, will force the issue back onto the political agenda. Protest can be a wonderful and effective thing but it has to have a realistic aim and whilst calls for Cameron to resign will be shrugged off by the Tory PR machine, a concerted campaign for tax reform, supported by both grassroots groups and opposition parties, cannot go unnoticed. Moreover, even if Cameron were to resign, many would claim victory and swiftly forget the matter, allowing the wider issue of tax avoidance by the wealthy to go unsolved. And since Cameron is soon to vacate No.10 anyway, it makes more sense to play the long game here.
The revelations in the Panama Papers have rightly caused outrage. Twitter users and Whitehall protestors are entirely justified in their calls for the PM to resign but it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Cameron won’t resign over this but the widespread discontent unleashed in the past few days must be converted into meaningful change which can only be effected by concerted and practical campaigns for tax justice. Labour must take the initiative in this fight and leave political game-playing aside, as Corbyn’s new politics promised to. But most importantly, if we expect change, the public response to these scandals needs to be more productive than reactionary or apathetic.