Monday, December 31, 2012


It’s been a tumultuous year for the BBC, with the autumn debacle surrounding the Corporation’s role in revelations about the child abuse practised by its long-time employee Jimmy Savile costing the new Director-General his job after fewer than eight weeks in post. I would hardly call it, with veteran World Affairs editor John Simpson, “the worst crisis that I can remember in my nearly fifty years at the BBC” – perhaps my memory is sharper than Simpson’s – but it has certainly not been an edifying spectacle.

The BBC has always been an unwieldy institution, even when it was considerably more collegiate and streamlined than it is now. Corporation lifers (of whom there are still many more than in most enterprises, even though it can never again be depended upon as a secure haven by those to whom the mores are palatable) are apt to insist (a verb much loved by BBC news scriptwriters) that “the Beeb” is still broadly “trusted” by the public and always has been. I’m not so sure. Equally, my own dealings with the BBC have often been complicated and thwarted by manoeuvrings that seem peculiar to intensely bureaucratic ivory towers.

John Simpson at the outset of his BBC career

The first television broadcast I ever saw was the BBC’s coverage of the coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II on June 2nd 1953. Along with a majority of British households (56 percent of the population, plus another 12 million following it on the wireless), we joined in the very first exercise in mass media communication in Britain. If you include the audiences for relays and recordings shown in other countries, the total viewing audience topped 277 million. The coverage cost the BBC £44,000.

Like so many others, we had to up sticks for the duration and squeeze into the living room of a neighbour’s house to gaze at that tiny black and white picture on the large and cumbersome but elegant wooden set. It was television that fixed the image for us: “Miss Jones: What colour was the Queen’s coach? – Michael: Grey, Miss” [The Golden Pathway Annual by John Harding and John Burrows].

My Dad was one of the million householders who bought a set in the year following the coronation. And our lives changed forever. The pattern of viewing began to dictate family life. I especially was entranced by this lively source of information, education and entertainment available (after a delay while it warmed up) at the touch of a button. The wireless could always be playing while you did other things, but the goggle-box demanded your full attention (at least, we thought so).

Until 1955, there was only the BBC’s single channel to watch and its hours were very restricted. ‘Closedown’ (when the national anthem was played and some viewers dutifully got to their feet) came early enough to allow even the petit bourgeoisie to have a glance at the evening paper before turning in. A smattering of items for children in the late afternoon was followed by a suspension of transmission between 6.00 and 7.00pm, to allow parents to pack them off to bed or to homework; this period became known as “the toddlers’ truce”. With such limited hours, it was feasible to watch everything broadcast. In our house, we often did.

Apologists for ITV are wont to claim that the BBC was staid and safe until the commercial channel gave it competition. The press had dubbed the BBC ‘Auntie’ but many newspaper owners nursed hopes of involvement in ITV franchises; they were far from disinterested. My Dad, himself a businessman, distrusted the commercial interests and “wouldn’t have ITV in the house” till he relented in 1961.

Joan Miller, the so-called switchboard girl, on Picture Parade

BBC producers established the conventions that subsequent services emulated and that still make up the major genres of the medium: one-off and serial drama, variety, sketch comedy, sitcom, panel games, quiz shows, children’s programmes, documentary, current affairs, news, magazine programmes, relays of outside events and what Homer Simpson would call “edumacation” programmes. While most of these forms derived from television services elsewhere (especially the States), from wireless and from entertainment sources of other kinds, little of substance has been added since.

Pre-ITV, the BBC produced the first magazine programme, Picture Page; Come Dancing; Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials and his dramatization of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; The Good Old Days; Sportsview; David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest; Watch with Mother; Panorama; Mr Pastry; Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?; the first British serial to embrace soap-opera values (The Grove Family); regular news bulletins and the basis for a network of schools programming. ITV introduced two ingredients of which the BBC knew nothing: advertising and showbiz. The impresarios who owned the companies that built ITV – the Bernsteins, the Grades, the Rank Organization, Associated British Pictures – had long experience of and wide links with the native film industry, the variety circuit, the popular press and myriad talent agencies. ITV aimed for and achieved a populist stance that the BBC felt (often with justice) was vulgar and down-market. Even its news service, ITN, had a more sensationalist approach than BBC News.

Over the years, the populist approach has utterly routed the thoughtful approach. By the 1970s, media analyst Anthony Smith was able to note that BBC1 and ITV were “moving towards a point of convergence”. Since then, the rush away from serious programming has accelerated. What was once thought perfectly accessible on BBC1 began to be shunted to BBC2 but now that channel is just as down-market. What the biz calls ‘quality’ programmes are found on BBC4, but in recent times that channel too has lowered its sights. Its bill of fare tonight – The Bridges That Built London; … Sings Disney Songs!; The Best of Kenny Everett’s Television Shows; Numb: Simon Amstell Live at the BBC; More Old Jews Telling Jokes; The Art of Tommy Cooper; How the Brits Rocked America; Sounds of the 70s – would have readily been scheduled on BBC1 thirty years ago.

Tommy Cooper, present-day BBC4 fare

That the media generally have dumbed down is beyond dispute. I never trust surveys but when their findings agree with one’s own view … and it so happens that an ICM poll in 2004 did find that of those questioned “54 percent agreed the BBC had ‘dumbed down’ or lowered quality”. I have no way of knowing how credible or properly worded the survey was, but in the end it matters little what proportion of people think that the BBC and other mediums of news and diversion have dumbed down. I know they have.

I turned 13 in 1960 and my teens happily coincided with what is unarguably remembered as the Golden Age of British television. I became particularly drawn to BBC1’s contemporary drama strand, The Wednesday Play, which ran from 1964 to 1970. My father’s resistance to ITV meant that I only discovered ABC Television’s Armchair Theatre in retrospect. This slot, which began in 1956, was in every way the forerunner of The Wednesday Play – Harold Pinter was among the playwrights to cut their teeth on it – and, in setting up its rival, the BBC even poached the presiding genius of ITV drama, Sydney Newman, to be its Head of Plays. Newman’s lethal combination of progressiveness, fearlessness, non-conformity and showbiz instincts ensured that the BBC’s contemporary drama was never out of the headlines.

I was at university and tinkering with a teleplay of my own when the BBC announced a play-writing competition open only to college students. Over the Easter vac, I settled seriously to the task and got my entry off just inside the deadline. By the summer, I had forgotten about it, so the letter telling me that my play had won the competition was a complete surprise. At a small and – as I was to discover – a very BBC ceremony in the Bridge Lounge at Television Centre, I was presented with a head-spinningly large cheque for £500 by the Head of Drama, Gerald Savory, attended by my proud parents. I don’t think either of them had actually read the play – certainly my father hadn’t – so they may not have been as braced for the ensuing events as they might have been.

The two runners-up were also at the ceremony, Catherine Itzin and Andrew Dickson. Both went on to do intriguing things. Itzin became a highly respected theatre academic and a formidable campaigner against pornography. Dickson had a varied career in journalism and became the lover of BBC drama producer Irene Shubik. Both died much too young.

The charismatic Sydney Newman

My play was called Circle Line. I actually entitled it Circle/Line which I fancied made it sound like the name of a modernist painting but the producer and script editor who subsequently put it into production briskly scotched that notion. Though (as regular readers of this blog will testify) I have a gift for nicely judged titles, almost nothing by me of substance that has been set before the public has been allowed out under my chosen title.

My protagonist was, like me, a London University student of philosophy. He was, in Peter Fiddick’s succinct assessment in his smart review for The Guardian, “a moral blank-sheet”. In the play’s overarching conceit, he viewed life as “like travelling round the Circle Line”. In a climactic scene, the Circle Line passengers panic when the train is stalled in a tunnel. My hero watches them dispassionately. Then the train restarts and they settle down. As an image of modern life, it was … well, serviceable.

The play was an active project within a few weeks of its prize: production turnaround was much faster then than now. Despite my inexperience, I was given full access to every stage of the process and even allowed by the director to choose the actor I favoured for the lead over his preferred candidate. There was some shooting on the underground for telecine drop-ins. One shot through the opening doors was ruined by a London Transport official standing in mid-shot barking “not this train”. But it was thrilling to be part of a location movie shoot in the city. The director even cut a shot of me into the final edit, my Hitchcock moment.

A lot of drama was still made with multiple cameras in the studio and that was how mine was recorded in the two days before Christmas in 1969. My mother and I sat in the back of the gallery and watched the whole process. Occasionally I was consulted – not, I felt, merely for form’s sake. However, at one point a note came from Gerald Savory who was in a viewing room somewhere above the studio. He couldn’t allow one of my more literary jokes.

My student hero, grumbling about some aspect of the service in a café, was to utter: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a Wimpy and chips” (if this quip leaves you struggling, I suggest you put “this is the way the world ends” in Google Search and “Wimpy” in Wikipedia). Gerald declared that we couldn’t use the word Wimpy, both because of the BBC’s barring of brand names and because it might be defamatory. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why this problem had been overlooked until the moment of recording. But, to my intense chagrin, the actor had to go with “not with a bang but with a cheese omelette” which, those of you who now have the joke under your belts will concur, lacks something by comparison.

Gerald Savory, long before the days when I knew him

It was more than a year before the recording was actually broadcast. Higher up in the management structure, there were concerns about the play’s content. Again it seemed to me that the proper time for these concerns was much earlier in the process. But I had the misfortune to coincide with a turning of the tide. Sir Hugh Greene, the most progressive and imaginative DG the BBC has ever had, was eased out of office in 1969 by the new Chairman of the BBC Board, Lord Hill. His replacement, Charles Curran, was a conservative placeman. The Golden Age was over.

In the 1970s, there was a long, brutal struggle over what writers and producers called ‘censorship’ and what managers called ‘editorial control’, fought in the corridors of television companies, especially the BBC. Many of the battles were about language. In Circle Line, some language detail was conceded by Savory, provided a brief discussion about masturbation was removed. On the other hand, a scene depicting my student hero post-coitally in bed with a 14 year-old boy was shown intact and, on that count alone, the play wouldn’t get accepted for production now, certainly not as written.

The language battles were often as trivial as that once described by Peter Cook, in which you would be, as it were, trading three ‘bloodies’ for a ‘shit’. The agent whom I had acquired, Clive Goodwin, argued that nobody who watched a Wednesday Play had cause to complain if she found it ruffled her sensibility. But if Cilla Black swept in at the top of her variety show and cried “Hello, you fuckers”, that would be an outrage. It was, I thought, a seductive if also reductive example. The point – that context is all – was pertinent, however. Now, of course, expletives that would embarrass a navvy are routinely included in the most humdrum, mainstream programmes, provided a warning about “strong” language has preceded the broadcast.

By the time that Circle Line was transmitted, The Wednesday Play had been axed. The rationale was that the new strand title, Play for Today, allowed greater transmission flexibility. But we one-off drama aficionados sensed that the writing was on the wall. Even though the leading teleplaywrights – Dennis Potter, David Mercer, Alun Owen, John Hopkins, Julia Jones, Jim Allen, Trevor Griffiths – were now taken as seriously as their equivalents in the theatre, the inevitable result of the increasing competitiveness of scheduling was that one-off programmes could not justify their comparatively high budgets.

After Circle Line, which was pretty well received, the BBC turned down the next eight plays that I wrote. Eight! I’d like to be able to say that this was a learning experience but the standard rejection letter that I received vouchsafed no more explication than the stock line “it’s not for us”.

Graeme McDonald during his uneventful spell as BBC2 Controller; he later nominally ran Prince Edward's production company Argent while drinking himself to death

After eighteen months, I was offered a consolation prize, a contract as a trainee script editor. The first three months of this were the best. I was sent on attachment to the Script Unit, which was based in the East Tower on the Television Centre site (the Drama Department was on the fifth floor of the main block, “the doughnut”). The legendary producer Tony Garnett also kept his office in the East Tower because, as he told me, it removed the temptation to get embroiled in the politics of the Drama Department. He also gave me some wise advice: "if you have to see a member of the management, always make the appointment for after half past five. Then they'll think you're working terrifically hard and there's a good chance you'll be offered a drink". Garnett was definitely one of the Corporation's survivors.

The Script Unit was staffed within and served from without by a bunch of delightful, generous people. Its function was to assess all the unsolicited scripts that poured into the BBC and to reply to them, often in remarkable detail. Those submitting their scribblings mostly had little appreciation of this extraordinary free tuition; indeed, some would argue fiercely with the findings. But all submissions were read, either by the in-house assessors like me or by wise old owls outside to whom scripts were farmed out. Of course it was a very useful exercise for me too. I learned a lot about how to read a script – a considerable skill now rarely encountered in the business – and how to structure and project material. Needless to add, the unit was closed down before the decade was out.

After that, I was attached to Graeme McDonald and Ann Scott, respectively producer and script editor of Circle Line, for the rest of my contract. This was a frustrating experience. The script editor’s function – nominally to look after the writer’s interests throughout the production – is in practice a nebulous job, wholly dependent on the relationship with the producer, whose strengths the script editor should ideally complement. Graeme and Ann had a well-established modus operandi that left little for me to do but pad around after them, making more or less unhelpful suggestions.

Moreover, they were not cut from the same generous cloth as Robin Wade and Betty Willingale in the Script Unit. There was an outsize character with whom I would sometimes have a lunchtime drink in the BBC Club. Derek Ingrey was small and dynamic, affecting an Aristide Bruant fedora and red scarf (long before those were a cliché) and expressing forthright opinions on everything. Bizarrely he was the script editor on Dixon of Dock Green (on the surface at least, a most unlikely piece of casting) and allegedly he would spend the autumn, winter and spring tending to Ted Willis’s workaday scripts and the summer in France having outrageous affairs with local schoolgirls. Anyway, Derek asked me one day how I was getting on with Graeme and Ann. He caught my moment of hesitation and observed shrewdly: “yes … costive, aren’t they”. I agreed for form’s sake and, having looked up the word later, agreed whole-heartedly.

David Rose, a lovely man, later C4's first drama controller

At the end of my contract, Cedric Messina (“the African queen” as one or two unkind souls called him) wanted me to become his script editor on Play of the Month, the slot for splashy production of theatre plays, typically Shakespeare, Shaw or Chekhov. I had got to know Cedric and liked him, had been to the house – very grand, as was everything of Cedric’s – and met his unexpected wife and even more unexpected tiny, ringleted daughter, had made some suggestions for the strand that had intrigued him: Morecambe and Wise in Waiting for Godot, Olivier in a role he had yet to conquer, Lear (which he famously did some years later for Granada). But Chris Morahan, the Head of Plays, declared that Cedric needed a mature script editor (he got Alan Shallcross) and that I ought to go off and run a theatre. “Oh yes,” I thought, “I’ll just nip into the Royal Court and stage a coup”.

It was five years before I returned to the BBC. At the time, I was writing television previews and a news column for The Observer, sharing a page with Clive James. Just before Christmas, I went up to Birmingham to attend the launch of Pebble Mill’s contribution to network drama which regularly launched the new year. After the main presentation and a buffet lunch, I sat down with a cassette of a complete play (I was always a diligent previewer). Throughout, I kept receiving messages that I must call in to the office of the Head of English Regions Drama, David Rose, before I left.

When I finally got to David’s office, it was packed with very noisy and drunken writers and directors. David, himself well away, hauled me into his inner sanctum and asked if I was ready to come back into television. This was very unexpected. He said he had a producing job that he hoped I would like to do and that we should have lunch in the new year. And in the new year I will continue the story.

Monday, December 17, 2012


What is to be done about gun control in the United States? Given that he will never again put himself up for office, Barack Obama cannot argue that the electorate prevents him from enacting new legislation – not this far from the mid-term elections at any rate. It is suggested that the “fiscal cliff” stand-off with the Republican-controlled Congress will absorb all his negotiating room, but gun control ought not to be a party issue, not if presented smartly.

Nobody suggests that it will be easy. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution declares that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. This clause was inserted 121 years ago last Saturday. The US was a very different place at the beginning of the 1790s when the drive west was getting under way. Over the following thirty years, the population of the country nearly tripled and the proportion living to the west of the Appalachians grew from five percent to twenty-five percent. This was the period when the native American was being systematically driven from his ancestral lands. So the right to bear arms was an unsurprising product of the wild frontier.

An emotional Obama speaks about the massacre

Is such a right necessary now? American lawlessness is often proclaimed as one of the nation’s greatest problems. Of course, the unfettered proliferation of deadly weapons itself promotes that lawlessness. For us in Britain, where firearms are much more often seen on the telly than (as it were) in the flesh, travelling in many parts of the world comes as a culture shock, especially in the matter of packing heat. Whether it is police being armed at so many European borders or teenaged soldiers walking the streets and riding the buses toting their TAR-21s in middle-eastern countries or those dinky little signs in suburban American front gardens that warn “armed response”, the mild-mannered Brits might be forgiven for feeling a touch of paranoia when far from home.

In the last five years, two judgments by the US Supreme Court have ratified the Second Amendment, underlining the individual’s right to possess a firearm for the purpose of protecting his property. Some restrictions have lapsed in recent years and polling suggests that support for gun control has waned at the same time, perhaps related to the perceived threat of terrorism.

But is there really anything remotely sensible to be said against rescinding the Second Amendment? I found a site (also styling itself Common Sense) that offers four arguments against gun control, largely attempting to defeat statistical points. Well, I too would rather eschew statistics and instead deploy reason. This site’s arguments are:

1: Thugs ignore gun laws.
2: Thugs prefer unarmed victims and avoid potentially armed citizens.
3: Crime is deviant behaviour.
4: Quotes the Second Amendment as “the Trump Card”.

This last is not an argument at all and cannot be engaged. The so-called “Colonel” who writes the blog (in actuality a children’s illustrator named Mary Dall) calls the Amendment “absolute, unambiguous and supersedes all arguments”. Well, it isn’t and it doesn’t. As for the first three arguments, the real debate is only marginally about crime. Rather, the discussion is about access. Most Americans seem quite convinced by the proposal that Iran having nuclear capacity is not a good idea. But it is no more of a good idea for American individuals even less stable than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to have access to deadly weapons.

Lanza: a chilling augury

The pro-gun lobby always puts forward the old saw that “it isn’t guns that kill people, it’s people that kill people”. I guess it’s not food that feeds people, it’s people that feed people. But you can bet that people with food are more adept at feeding people than people without food. Now make the analogy with guns. Adam Lanza, the Newtown, Connecticut killer, would have achieved many fewer casualties if he had only been able to throttle his victims. Even with a kitchen knife, he couldn’t have killed fleeing children, at least not without risking the loss of his weapon. The guns gave him the capacity to slay twenty-seven. Perhaps if he had had a missile, he could have taken out the whole school from his bedroom window.

Of course criminals will still get their hands on guns. That happens in Britain too. The difference is that practically all of the 0.1-per-1,000 of the UK population who are killed by guns are killed by criminals, whereas a substantial majority of the 3-per-1,000 Americans who die by guns do so in accidental shootings, domestic disputes or rampages by the unhinged. That is the critical difference that derives from easy access to guns.

Lanza's weapon of choice: the Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle

Moreover, tightening the regulations that govern the licensing of weapons will not make sufficient difference. As we saw in the harrowing incident at Newtown, the mass murderer helped himself to the weapons registered to his mother, who then became his first victim. Indeed, she had taught him to shoot. It might be instructive to learn what proportion of Americans is slain by their own guns.

A lot of Americans – some women as well as men – like to indulge the fantasy of being some dauntless combination of Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill. This fantasy is clung to as an inalienable right and, in consequence, the cold dead hand of Charlton Heston still grips the American legislature. Well, neighbourhood law-enforcement is a profession and a sophisticated one with a good many controls and regulations. It is not the business of amateurs. And hunting ought to be restricted too, both for the sake of the survival of America’s dwindling wildlife and to prevent the kind of accident that so besmirched the otherwise blemishless reputation of former Vice-President Dick Cheney.

The Connecticut mansion where Lanza killed his mother

It is blindingly obvious – to rational people if not to the National Rifle Association – that fewer guns in private hands will result in fewer deaths by gunshot. Some now argue that the Newtown children might have survived if their teachers had gone to school armed. That presupposes such a lot of elements cohering – that the teachers happened to have their weapons at the ready when Lanza shot his way into the school, that at least one of them would have had no compunction about shooting him in cold blood, that no child or teacher would have been hurt in crossfire, that no kind of a gun battle would have developed, that no curious child was ever able to get their hands on a weapon, that no accident would ever occur in the storing or maintaining of the school’s arsenal, that the school’s security was always so good that it would be impossible that someone wanting to grab a cache of guns could break in.

The answer is not to arm the school but to disarm the Lanza household. Why is this so difficult to grasp? Why are men with small penises allowed to hold sway over rational thought because of their desire to look big with a deadly weapon to hand? People have to be prepared to surrender their pleasures (killing defenceless birds and animals) and their comforts (armed response) for the greater good. And to those who still argue for unfettered gun possession, the best response is simply to begin the litany of names of the children who died at Lanza’s hands. And then those of the teachers. And then those who died at Northern Illinois University, at Virginia Tech, at Nickel Mines Amish School, at Red Lake Senior High, at Columbine …

Friday, December 07, 2012


On the day that the Chancellor was delivering his admission of failure (sorry, autumn statement), I fell to thinking about the tax system (my internet connection was down for a couple of days so this posting has been delayed). We’re frequently told that it is too complicated and that it needs simplifying. Equally, its complexity appears to be such as to defeat attempts to simplify it. This is a mere fig-leaf for inaction. Successive governments of all inclinations have neglected to tackle either the convolutions that allow the astute and the unscrupulous to avoid paying their dues or the resultant chasm between rich and poor, a chasm that has continued to widen, despite the presence of supposedly egalitarian ministers throughout a majority of the past fifty years.

Chancellor Osborne

What can be done? I propose that some new principles activate taxation policy. The first is to make it an overarching truism that taxation is a contribution rather than a penalty. We all pay lip-service to the famous dictum in John F Kennedy’s inauguration address more than fifty years ago: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. Yet we generally resent paying our dues, talk in terms of “the burden of taxation”, even of “state grabs”, and have no compunction about paying the window-cleaner or the decorator in cash so that we avoid VAT and he avoids tax altogether.

Tory Chancellors generally aim to cut taxation because they subscribe to a liberal fiscal policy of reducing public spending and “giving back” to the electorate or rather, as we anti-Tories call them, to “their friends in the city”. But this stance implicitly confirms the notion that tax is an imposition. Rather, government needs to engineer a change of mindset so that the duty on goods and transactions is seen as that other kind of duty, a civic duty. The fine distinction between tax evasion and tax avoidance needs to be eradicated. Not paying one’s dues is too often seen as a legitimate sport – and certainly less culpable than taking unmerited benefits (which robs the country of far less). But avoiding/evading tax needs to be re-categorised as what it really is: anti-social behaviour, deception and indeed theft.

Old Rupe

Then the thrust of tax should be firmly fixed onto income and purchasing. These are clearly identifiable areas of accounting where deception is most easily detected. Let income tax, from whatever source, be calculated on a straightforward sliding scale. This can allow government to manipulate the wider economy to ensure that wealth really is redistributed and the gap between rich and poor reduced. I propose that personal taxation be as rigorous and simple as possible. If the respective amounts that various classes and strata of citizens receive and hold can be controlled by tax, there is no need to overlay on that system a cat’s cradle of ifs and buts that is complicated and susceptible to exploitation. Let us abolish the tax loop-hole once and for all.

If the bulk of tax is taken based upon an individual’s income, the great majority of other occasions for imposing duty may be done away with. Taxes on business, on enterprise, on firms and on organisations could be cut to a minimum. By the same token, business deductions should be done away with too. If tax on enterprise is low, there is no argument for or need for outgoings to be set against tax. Businesses will have to cover their expenditure in the charges that they make to others or in the rates of pay with which they reward themselves and their people.

Young Rothers

But if trading outfits are permitted to keep the great majority of their income and profit and only see taxation begin to kick in when that income and those profits are disbursed to share-holders, directors, pension-holders, employees and those with whom they make trades, there ought to be more incentive to plough profits back into the business. The traditional blurring between business expenditure and capital expenditure would no longer bedevil tax claims.

Taxation on corporate profit (capital gains) could be abandoned, encouraging business to invest. Tax on spend – what used to be called purchase tax and is now VAT – could be more carefully targeted, especially to help those for whom certain items like domestic utilities, eating out, petrol and clothing make up a high proportion of costs. The black economy aside, taxes associated with purchasing do not lend themselves so readily to corrupt practices.

Under my taxation system, it would be the level of personal income that would be most closely scrutinised by HMRC. No individual would be able to pass himself off as a business as many have profitably done to date, most notoriously the comedian Jimmy Carr.

Barclay bros

Nor would individuals be able to avoid their dues by living abroad. The press barons have never been slow to avoid paying their dues. US citizen Rupert Murdoch contributes no tax to the British government and employs an army of accountants to minimise doing so elsewhere. Lord Rothermere, owner of The Daily Mail, contrives to live in tax exile even though his main residence is in Wiltshire, a remarkable piece of juggling (his newspapers are registered in Bermuda and the wealth he inherited from his father was not subject to British penalties because Rothermere Sr lived under the rather less draconian tax regime in force in Paris). Performing the onerous task of owning The Daily Telegraph from their tax haven in Monaco, the multi-millionaire Barclay Brothers must have laughed to scorn the fainthearted level of graft in the Westminster village that was so comprehensively uncovered by their organ. Moat-cleaning indeed! Why not acquire a Channel Island? That’s a vastly more cost-effective scam.

The issue of “non doms” did exercise politicians and commentators on all sides for a while in the century’s first decade, but to no lasting purpose. The question of whether someone who lives abroad for tax purposes should enjoy status privileges in Britain is, to my mind, an irrelevant and misleading question. Where someone designates her or his principal residence is far too exploitable a matter. Income should be taxed not on the basis of where the earner lives but where the income is earned. Better yet, follow the practice of the IRS in the United States: tax without reference to either the location of the earner’s domicile or the country of the income’s origin. To avoid taxation, Americans have to renounce their US citizenship altogether and even after that their US income is taxed on the same basis as that of a guest worker. You don’t hear of US billionaires living as tax exiles. And if rich Americans can tolerate such a system, Brits sure as hell can too.

P Green

No doubt there would be a degree of departure from these shores among those unwilling to submit to contributing an appropriate proportion of their wealth to public provision. Such people merit a one-word response: “Goodbye”. If, to continue owning several mansions and a private jet, they are obliged to be based in a country where, beyond their gated communities, they are surrounded by abject poverty, that is for their consciences to reconcile. But it is a self-serving myth that our industries cannot survive without greedy, grasping individuals. They can and will survive (the BBC managed to go on after Jonathan Ross, for instance) because there will always be people who are thoughtful as well as talented, who want work that is stimulating first and lucrative only as may be, and who will choose to stay in a decent society that diligently cares for all its members.

Tax-dodging needs to be much more heavily penalised. There is no sensible argument for sending such crooks to jail. The penalties that hurt are financial ones. Let any individual found to have avoided taxation be fined five times the amount avoided. And let organisations, companies and corporations pay twenty times the tax shortfall. Such penalties ought to have a deterrent effect. The present argument about tax avoidance that is immoral but not illegal is an absurdity. If the tax laws cannot be streamlined so that any tax bill that is morally justified is simultaneously obligatory, the authorities have only themselves to blame for their failings.

Jumping Mick Flash

Finally, there is the black economy. Many who rail against the bestowing of (for instance) a knighthood on Philip Green or Mick Jagger for services to tax avoidance do not turn a hair at under-the-counter transactions of their own. Well, you may ask, how can one track down the black economy? The task can certainly begin. The Television Licensing Authority notoriously comes calling on householders who do not own a television licence on the argument that not all of these people can possibly be getting by without a television. Something similar could be undertaken to confront those who do not register on HMRC’s records. Some of those accumulating cash-in-hand income while registered for benefits would certainly be caught that way. Maybe HMRC might also work fruitfully in tandem with the Ministry for Work and Pensions to identify those many millions who are entitled to receive state benefits and credits but, usually out of ignorance, do not receive them.


On the subject of Sir Mick Jagger, the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Stones reminds of the two gigs of theirs that I attended in my youth. The big megastar one was at Earls Court as part of their European tour in May 1976. But I more fondly recall the rougher band that I saw – still including Brian Jones – at Kettering Granada in January 1964, when they closed the first half of a bill topped by the Ronettes. Now that was real rock’n’roll history.