When you write about big global issues every day, it’s easy to lose perspective in the enormity of it all and miss the little steps forward along the way. One of the areas where there is definite progress is tax dodging. Just four or five years ago, there was practically no public debate about tax havens or tax avoidance at all. Now it’s taken seriously enough for a prime position on the agenda at the G8 summit.
Here’s David Cameron:
We must fight the scourge of tax evasion by promoting a new global standard for automatic information exchange between tax authorities. And we must tackle aggressive tax avoidance by encouraging better global reporting to tax authorities in both the developed and developing world; and by letting tax collectors and law enforcement find out who really owns and controls each company.
Note that Cameron is promising to tackle both illegal tax evasion, and legal tax avoidance. This is new. Britain has been silent on tax issues for a long time, mainly because we still run many of the world’s tax havens.
But the change isn’t just in government. In 2007 The Economist claimed that “tax havens are an unavoidable part of globalisation and, ultimately, a healthy one.” This year they had a special edition on tax havens and articles on “how to stop companies and people dodging tax.” Or take The Spectator. Ten years ago it could publish recommendations on tax havens – “Costa Rica is my tax haven of the year” wrote columnist Christopher Fildes. This year it hosted an article titled “Tax avoidance must stop, and companies themselves must lead the way”.
Both these publications are still skeptical and are far from becoming champions of tax integrity, but they are symptomatic of a cultural change. Discussions that were off-limits are now permitted. Accounting practices that were simply considered clever are now considered morally questionable.
What’s changed? The enduring recession has forced the government to look at new ways of securing revenue. That’s probably the biggest factor, but it’s impossible to ignore the work of campaigns and NGOs in raising awareness of the problem. Groups like UK Uncut have protested imaginatively around tax avoidance. ActionAid and WDM have run extensive campaigns around tax, and the IF campaign has put it front and centre. Tax campaigners like Richard Murphy or the Tax Justice Network suddenly found they had company, after years of being niche specialists. Nicholas Shaxson‘s book Treasure Islands lifted the lid on tax havens and new campaigns like End Tax Haven Secrecy or Tackle Tax Havens spread the word.
Through the work of these groups and people, a light has been shone on an issue that most people knew very little about. The media have picked up on it, and it’s now a scandal when a celebrity or a corporation is found to be dodging their tax, whether they’ve done it legally or not.
The problem is far from being fixed of course, and the gulf between talk and action remains vast. It would be premature to declare any kind of victory, but when you stop and look at where we have come from, things are moving fast. Cultural ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour are changing. Campaigning can work, and it’s good to be reminded of that from time to time.