There are, of course, those occasions where what is immoral is clearly illegal; in instances of murder or assault, what offends our sensibilities also demands the punishment of the perpetrator. In many other instances, behaviour that many of us might find deplorable is perfectly legal.
When one considers human frailty, it’s clear this is entirely sensible.
I’m sure you have your own candidates for those whose damnable behaviour shouldn’t be allowed. One sort many will agree is due its comeuppance is the tax avoiding sort.
Helpfully, the leak of 11.5 million documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca has exposed countless rich and powerful people who use offshore arrangements to avoid tax; the contents of “Panama papers” confirmed what many long suspected about the especially wealthy.
Already, the scandal has cost one prime minister his job and put another under considerable pressure. Iceland’s PM, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson stepped down after it emerged he and his wife owned an offshore company, something he had not declared when he entered parliament. Gunnlaugsson said he had sold his shares to his wife and insisted he had done nothing wrong. In reply, more than 10,000 Icelanders gathered outside the national parliament to demand his resignation. And our own PM continues to face difficult questions about his financial dealings.
David Cameron eventually admitted that he had owned shares in Blairmore Holdings – an offshore fund set up by his late father, Ian – after four days of evasive answers to questions.
As is so often the case, handling of this issue has made matters much worse for the politician at the centre of events. On Monday, the PM’s spokeswoman, asked to confirm that no Cameron family money was still invested in the fund, gave the clearly unsustainable response that this was “a private matter”. Come Tuesday, it was pretty clear (even to the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, I should think) that this was not “a private matter”, whether Cameron liked it or not. And so the PM gave an interview in which he said he had no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds, nothing like that… That was, he said, a very clear description.
Later the same day, there was a clarification of this very clear description when Downing Street issued a statement to the effect that the PM, his wife, and their children do not benefit from any offshore funds. Furthermore, Cameron owns no shares, at all.
For fans of clarification, Wednesday was to be quite a day. Number 10, having twice clarified went for the hat-trick, stating that there existed no offshore funds or trusts which the Prime Minister, his wife, or their children would benefit from in the future.
When politicians start piling clarification on top of clarification, we’ve every right to become suspicious. On Thursday, Cameron told ITV News that he had owned 5,000 units in Blairmore which were sold in January 2010.
If you think the way this fact had to be dragged out of the Prime Minister made him look evasive and shady, you’re not alone. This was a low point for Cameron, who managed to confirm several popular stereotypes about self-serving Tories.
Naturally, Labour has attempted to make capital from the PM’s circumstances. Doesn’t his behaviour show that there really is one rule for the wealthy and another for the rest of us?
In fact, no, it doesn’t.
What the Prime Minister did was not illegal. There is no rule that prevents anyone from doing as he once did. If, of course, they have the money. Nor is there any legislation in Iceland that made Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson’s dealings illegal.
But it hardly matters about the law, in this instance, because this is about morality.
For some time, now, it’s seemed to me that we’re living through a long and bloody reckoning with those who have abused power.
The media, Westminster, the police, the banking system, even show business have taken turns as the focus of public anger while, at the same time, politicians who appear to be on the side of “the people” have been doing great business.
I’m not particularly comfortable with the idea of the wealthy avoiding paying tax, even by legal means, but if the law provides for people to do this, who can blame them for taking advantage? (I know you would never do this sort of thing if you were loaded and, you know, I’m the same but other people aren’t like us, are they?)
It’s hardly surprising that so many are so angry about Cameron’s past dealings. The PM’s “we’re all in this together” schtick rattles hollow when he can afford to bung more than the average annual wage into an offshore scheme.
Under different circumstances – specifically, if the Labour Party wasn’t being led by the useless Jeremy Corbyn – the PM’s financial dealings, even the historic ones, might cause real problems for the Conservatives. A Prime Minister already trying to hold together a Tory Party determined to split over Europe and now tainted by a financial scandal that confirms our worst fears about the excesses of the rich would be vulnerable to a strong opposition.
As it is, I suspect Cameron can ride this one out, if only because the opposition is still a mess.
There will now, I suppose, be some pledge from the UK government of further action on tax evasion. Perhaps there will be legislation to block the use of offshore funds by UK taxpayers. If this can be done (though one wonders about the practicality) then who would oppose?
But while this practice isn’t illegal then we’re on the dangerous territory of policing by the morality of the mob. In this instance, the mob may be right, but that is not always the case.
Meanwhile, other politicians might want to consider the lesson of David Cameron’s experience: Don’t do anything that you can’t comfortably justify, even if it’s perfectly legal.