Stuart Bathgate: No sympathy when the public purse is being short-changed
Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs should treat Craig Whyte no differently than any other taxpayer
IF you or I fell behind with our taxes, say for a relatively small amount such as £900, we would get a late-payment penalty and the threat of further legal action. The First Minister of Scotland would not rush into a television studio to call on Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs to be reasonable and give us more time. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom would not declare that the priority was for us to survive and thrive.
Both of those politicians, if our minor financial difficulties came to their notice, would rightly say that the rule of law is paramount. Times are tight, it is more important than ever that taxes are paid, our public services need proper funding.
So why, when Craig Whyte falls behind with his taxes for a relatively large amount like £9million, is there such a different reaction? Why has there been such an outpouring of sympathy, not only from Alex Salmond and David Cameron, but from a far wider section of society?
Is there no room, between that sympathy of a large tranche of public opinion and the Schadenfreude of those who dislike Rangers, for any other position? For example, one that says by all means let’s get Rangers back on their feet, but not at the expense of the public purse?
As politicians, Salmond and Cameron have an interest in courting positive publicity. The former is deeply unpopular with many Rangers fans, the latter with just about everyone else in Scotland, so they could do with a bit of help. Even so, it has been breathtaking how willingly those two senior governing figures have distanced themselves from the arm of government, HMRC, which is there to fund their plans, build our schools and keep our hospitals open.
Salmond has tried to present himself as an honest broker, calling for the Revenue and Rangers to play softball together. Speaking on the BBC’s Reporting Scotland on Wednesday evening he said: “The most important thing is to get a sensible agreement between Rangers and HMRC in terms of the extent of what’s owed and how that can be paid off.
“The most important thing is that Rangers are able to continue as a football club. That’s the absolutely critical matter. I think if we keep our eyes on what’s best for Rangers as a club, as an institution, for other clubs in Scotland, for Scottish football, then that would be a sensible thing to do.”
What’s best for Rangers as an institution? What does that badly overused word have to do with anything? Next time the Revenue are on your case, tell them you’re an institution and see how far that gets you.
Cameron, to give him his due, retained a little more distance, albeit while expressing the same misplaced sentiments. “I want that club to survive and to thrive,” he said on his visit to Scotland yesterday. “It has an extraordinary history. It has a very special place in many people’s hearts in Scotland and no-one wants to see that club disappear. So I hope that HMRC will work as closely as they can with the administrators to try to solve the problems, to try to resolve the issues.”
That last phrase is suitably vague: resolving the issues. If it means securing the future of the people who work at Ibrox, most of us would be with him there. If it means letting Whyte off lightly, we would beg to differ.
Because there is a position between sympathy and Schadenfreude. One which, after a couple of days of near silence, is beginning to find its voice. And it’s an increasingly angry voice.
There is an e-petition on the official British government website, for example, called “Rangers. Pay your taxes.” It can be read, signed or commented on by clicking here.
It mentions the pending tax case which could cost the Ibrox club around £50m in addition to the £9m in VAT and PAYE which Whyte has not paid, and concludes: “Rangers FC and their owners need to pay their dues, pay their taxes and take the full punishment that is imposed on them.”
And on the Hearts supporters’ chatroom, Jambos Kickback, one poster writes: “[Salmond] said his priority is ensuring Rangers survive. As First Minister, his priority should be what is best for the Scottish taxpayer and if that is the closing down of Rangers then that is what he should call for.
“I do not think those who are struggling, [have] seen their businesses close or have been pursued vigorously for tax due, would appreciate any let-off or a laidback attitude.”
It is debatable whether the closing-down of Rangers would benefit the taxpayer, but the principle stands. There is no reason why Whyte should be given an easier time than any other individual who is late in paying tax. Indeed, given the size of the sum he has failed to pay, he should be pursued with even greater vigour than anyone whose misdemeanour may amount to a few hundred pounds.
That is something we should all be able to agree on whether we support Rangers, loathe them or have no interest in football. We could do a lot with that £9m: build more facilities for health or education, fund more anti-crime initiatives, or simply succeed in delaying a few of the cuts that are being implemented by the UK government. Craig Whyte should be held liable for every last penny of it.
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