18 Oct 2019

This is a follow up to “The crumbling social contract”, written in March 2017.

A government that is answerable to the people who elected it has a critical peacetime power that depends entirely on its perceived legitimacy. The power to impose taxes. Where would all those generous spending promises come from if they didn’t have the right to confiscate our money?

The UK Parliament’s obligation to pass all taxes into law was conceived as part of the 1689 Bill of Rights which constrained the power of the monarch (James II). The quid pro quo was that the populace would give their consent to be taxed. In practice this means that the people have to believe that the parliament represents them.

The slogan “no taxation without representation” is associated with the American Revolution. The colonists objected to paying taxes to the British government which seemed to them, and which was subsequently to become, a foreign power.

The debate over the 2016 EU referendum was sometimes claimed (by those who wanted to leave) to be a similar question. They take our money and spend it without consulting us very much. The slogan that helped to win the day was “Take back control”.

I think that most of the British public were not particularly concerned about the money. Didn’t Mrs Thatcher get us a rebate once? The attempt by the Remain campaign to turn the referendum into an economic debate, though it continues to this day, was a failure.


Recently, though, our MPs have been daring themselves to reinterpret the meaning of democratic representation. They are like looters in the aftermath of a riot. Someone else broke the windows. Surely reaching through and nicking something isn’t such a big crime? If I don’t, someone else will.

Some have merely abandoned or if you prefer reinterpreted the manifestos on which their parties stood in 2017. Others have actually changed sides and not one has taken the honourable course of offering themselves back to their voters in a by-election. Every conceivable legal chance has been taken to force through, block, delay or reverse the result of the referendum. No doubt our MPs would say that all’s fair in love and war and that this is a national emergency.


In genuine times of war, democracy has to be put on hold. In WWII, Churchill was careful to include senior Labour politicians in his Coalition Cabinet and nearly ten years passed between the 1935 and 1945 General Elections. In the US, Roosevelt was elected President four times in a row (1932-44).

You probably remember that in Orwell’s 1984 the government tells its people that they are perpetually at war (though the enemy seems to change) and justifies effective totalitarian control in consequence. Perpetual emergency demands a form of unity in which dissenting voices are crushed. Gradually our politicians have borrowed the vocabulary of war (“Surrender Act”; “Government of National Unity”) and stealthily begun to subvert democracy in the atmosphere of confusion.

Clearly we still claim to value highly our democracy and the right to debate. Such is the current lack of national unity, that many supposedly reasonable people disagree passionately and all consider themselves to be correct and the tactics of their own side to be justified. But when those tactics include reinterpreting democratic votes we must be very careful.


Let’s remind ourselves of the point that people who consent to be taxed need to believe that their views are represented by the Parliament that votes for those taxes to be enacted.

The more you earn, the easier it is to avoid tax. You just have to be irritated enough to do it. And let’s not forget that the multitude of legal tax breaks, motivated by reasons that few can remember, have also all been voted in by various Parliaments. Twenty seven percent of all income tax is paid by 1% of all income tax payers.

You can argue about income inequality (which as everyone knows or should know has fallen overall in the UK since 2007) or wealth tax until you are in total agreement with yourself but the truth remains that the consent of taxpayers will always be required.

Let us go one stage further. As luck would have it, in today’s world of nearly free money, governments have an unprecedented opportunity to abandon fiscal responsibility and to borrow, borrow, borrow. You could say that the world’s central bankers have gifted politicians the chance, for a while at least, to say “the hell with taxpayers, we’ll raise the money ourselves”. And who will end up with those debts? Taxpayers of the future! Funny old world, isn’t it?

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