Tackling UK financial corruption: can Wikileaks, the tax justice movement and Labour help each other?

Secret tax files passed by a Swiss banker to Wikileaks have further highlighted the corruption of UK governance and our financial institutions. Stuart Weir reflects on how we can tackle tax avoidance and the use of tax havens, and asks what part, if any, Labour will play.
Stuart Weir
22 January 2011

The detailed set of prescriptions from Richard Murphy for dealing with tax avoidance and the interesting exchange between Tony Curzon Price and Jim Robertson have been accompanied by the real-life drama of the rebel banker Rudolf Elmer and his Wikileaks leak of bank details on tax avoidance. The media so far as I can see have been treating the Elmer story as a sub-plot to coverage of the larger Wikileaks saga, except for a piece in the Observer by Ed Vulliamy (a rare beast in British journalism, a real reporter). But this is much more a story of the corruption of UK governance and our financial institutions.

The significance for the UK of Elmer's willingness to spill the beans is that he was a former chief operating officer for a Swiss bank in the Cayman Islands and is thus in a position to reveal details of the immoral, unprofessional and possibly criminal activity that goes on in the island with the blessing of the British government and the connivance of the City of London and our predatory class of tax experts, accountants and lawyers. Elmer has said, 'the main product [of a tax haven like the Cayman Islands] is secrecy . . . Crimes are committed and lies spread in order to protect this secrecy.'

Richard takes issue with me on my comment that Nicholas Shaxson's list of remedies seem remote and essentially out of reach for our protest movement. Fair enough. I am not in a position to assess the practicality of his proposals, though obviously more transparency is an essential first stage in any reform movement. Tony and Jim seem to agree that we can only check this unseemly business through international action, perhaps a 'US/EU/Japan Tobin tax', because unilateral action by the UK would send financial institutions scampering out of the City to friendlier jurisdictions. Tony reckons that the Treasury is good at maximising the tax take and that unilateral action would be self-harming. Jim says abolish corporation tax, as it is basically voluntary, and concentrate on sorting out personal taxation.

I almost wrote originally, as Jim does, that the City is 'a malignant tumour' sucking the wealth and life out of the UK economy (as well as the economies of developing countries). What strikes me is that the City and City Corporation are malignant growths that a democratic nation has to sort out whatever is done locally or internationally about the offshore activities of corporations, rich individuals and their advisers. As we know, New Labour acquiesced in this unaccountable world, and indeed made it more unaccountable. It is no good looking to this Tory-led coalition to act. The question is, will Ed Miliband move beyond New Labour or not?

Those of us who care should not under-estimate the political dangers of such an enterprise. Miliband would be assisted at least if people build on Shaxson's admirable work, ideas such as Richard Murphy's and the protest movement and reveal and publicise the extent of tax avoidance and - pace Tony - the losses to public finance involved. It will be interesting to see how Wikileaks handles its new cache of information and how our supine media report any revelations - and how far our libel and other laws will allow them to do so. As it is, only the Guardian and Observer can be relied on to take an interest.

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