Edition number 9; dateline 30 May 2008

Culture, general taxation and the two-way radio

Early one morning earlier this month Sir Martin Sorrell was explaining to the Today programme why the government’s attitude to business taxation was prompting him seriously to consider moving WPP, the advertising and media conglomerate of which he is chief executive, abroad. But then again, he carefully explained, he might not.

Why, I wondered from the safety of my very business-like duvet, not? Off you go then, I told Sir Martin via my radio (it is a fact known only to the very irascible that if you shout loudly enough at the radio the person in the studio can hear you, but only if they are talking complete rubbish). Why should we be so desperate to keep all you business and financial geniuses in the UK when you couldn’t work out that blithely lending money to people who had no hope of paying it back and continuing to pour money into projects that have no use or hope of working (I refer you to TLR’s World of Leisure and the Olympic Price Watch service) was going to have repercussions? I suspect you don’t, proportionally speaking, pay much tax anyway and you could always go and live next door to Paul Daniels, Frank Bruno and all the others who have faithfully promised to leave the country at the first sign of something that might adversely affect their ability to do what the bloody hell they like when the bloody hell they might like to do it.

Except, of course, they didn’t. By this time my incisive early morning debating skills had forced Sir Martin to scurry off and hide behind the sports report but I knew he could still hear me. And why would you not, were you a fabulously wealthy captain of international industry and all-round right clever one, bimble off to sunnier climes that promise even lower levels of taxation and even less business regulation? Paul and Frank, I seem to remember, felt that they weren’t of quite sufficient funds and decided to stay put. Surely Sir Martin can number himself in the realm of the seriously oofy, so why would he not be on the first packing case out of the country.

There are a couple of potential reasons to make him pause before he phoned Pickfords. First up, after almost twenty-five years of untrammelled monetarism, it is probably quite difficult to find anywhere less favourable to business that is not run by men in military uniforms who collect their taxes in cash at the point of a gun. Secondly, I suspect he, and the thousands who may well work for him, quite like living and working here. My argument is not that the UK is some bastion of sense and tranquillity or a shining example of probity and equitable social policy; rather that if you happen to be seriously wealthy, there are worse places to live than this little tax haven off the coast of Europe.

It is not just about how much you can earn and how much they will let you keep. Culture –  in our leisure, recreation, sport, art and all points north and south understanding of the word – has something to do with it. People from across the globe come to the UK because they find it interesting for all sorts of historic, genealogical and financial reasons, and plenty of them choose to stay because they like the variety of our cultural pursuits, the accessibility of some of the finer things in life and the investment that we as a society choose to make in the facilities, amenities and services that contribute to the collective quality of life.

The word ‘collective’ might have been ill-chosen in this context because I could not be certain that Sir Martin would understand what I meant (even though I knew he could still hear me over the rustling of the second newspaper review of the morning). What the wealthy might not notice is that all this highly attractive culture is not just for them and their similarly remunerated friends. The rest of us are quite interested as well; culture in some form or other is applicable – and accessible – to pretty much everyone. Down in the lower tax brackets, huge efforts are made by leisure professionals – often in the public and voluntary sectors –  to improve the lives and environments of individuals, families and communities of all hues and cries. A lot of this work is funded directly or indirectly by general taxation. Sir Martin and his mates should have a look beyond the leafy squares to see how some of the money not still in his pocket is spent. He should then make a choice: dip in or pack up.

I put it a bit stronger than that but I knew he couldn’t hear me. He’d left the studio by then.

Jonathan Ives

For the etymology of the word ‘oofy’ one is best directed to Wodehouse, for which try the Blandings website.




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