Let’s hope the latest tax avoidance scandal will finally inspire people to kick up a storm
It is curious that in post-Christian Britain we yet reach for the language of the apocalypse to describe events that elude our immediate understanding. There has been a sequence of occurrences recently to which we have assigned biblical portent. If taken literally, then it would seem that the big chaps with the scythes and horses may be pounding along any minute now. The secular soothsayers in our midst first felt ripples in the water last month when the Queen met Martin McGuinness. When this was followed by the end of Rangers FC, they were in ferment. At this rate, if Scotland votes yes to independence in 2014 then we will all be watching the skies in our sackcloths and ashes.
Yet we have probably all exaggerated the significance of these events, unthinkable though they would have been a few years ago. The Queen’s encounter with the former commander of the IRA in Belfast was merely symbolic of a peace process that had begun 18 years earlier. Rangers’ fall, though spectacular, will not cause permanent damage. A team bearing their colours and name will be competing for honours again at Ibrox Stadium within five years. And will it very much change our lives if Scotland becomes independent two years hence? These events, though they may yet come to define an era, are easily explained when subject to further scrutiny.
What I will find much more difficult to explain is if some kind of violent upheaval has not occurred before the second decade of the 21st century has elapsed. I have always been puzzled by the absence of any real and prolonged social unrest in modern British history, especially when most of the world’s most important nations have all endured their own revolutions.
France, Russia, the US, China and Germany had their social landscapes altered for ever by popular uprisings or belligerent despots. In Britain, we had a couple of riots in the English north and a skirmish at the Carron Ironworks in Stirlingshire. Not much else by way of revolt got off the ground despite hundreds of years when the vast majority of people in this country were enslaved by a tiny privileged minority. The aristocracy, though, had the perfect weapon at their disposal whenever hoi polloi began to get restive. They organised a war somewhere and called on the proletariat to defend the honour of the crown. How our ancestors didn’t simply tell the government to take a flying fuck when a war was arranged and stick the crown up their jacksies sideways I will never know.
So the wars came thick and fast as Britain built its empire, fought the French, got involved in the Austrian succession and disputed the question of Jenkins’ Ear. No issue, territory or kingdom was deemed irrelevant to the British aristocracy’s interests and millions of the crown’s scum subjects died in the pursuit of glory. This meant there was precious little time between wars for the workers to organise a proper domestic revolution. They were all too busy singing country airs from the shires and getting themselves killed in Europe with that dreadful old Uncle Tom, Richard Sharpe.
The workers of 21st-century Britain though, have far fewer excuses not to organise a revolution. For Britain doesn’t really do wars any more, unless you count the pathetic turkey shoots it sporadically organises against developing countries to keep our forces all shipshape and Bristol fashion. What hasn’t changed since millworkers were being abused by the men who made the Conservative party is the extent to which ordinary people in this country are held in contempt by rich and unaccountable people who can bend the British government to its will.
Graham Aaronson QC is the man who will design new laws aimed at curbing aggressive tax avoidance. Recently, he warned of social unrest if affluent people are allowed to continue to cheat the revenue. What then would he have said about the revelation that Barclays had manipulated interest rates and had probably been joined in the adventure by other high street institutions? Ever since Northern Rock collapsed in 2007, it has become clear that the banking industry has been allowed by two governments to operate as a corrupt and fraudulent cartel. It is a mafia in all but name and it has been permitted to operate within a legal exclusion zone that the last Labour government euphemistically called “light touch” regulation. Perhaps Craig Whyte, the pantomime villain of the Rangers downfall, should have said that he was only applying a “light touch” approach to his relationship with HMRC.
The day after Mr Aaronson made his grim warning banking chiefs lobbied David Cameron to enlist his support in their fight to stop Brussels limiting the amount of millions that they can be awarded in bonuses. In five years, Britain has learned that a tiny, unaccountable parcel of multimillionaires wrecked the economy largely owing to their greed; that we bailed them out on the understanding that their obscene bonuses would be cut; that they ignored this; that they falsified lending rates and that they still want bigger bonuses. The actions of these people have destroyed thousands of businesses, will lead to hundreds of thousands of job losses and will prevent many ordinary people sharing in the nation’s wealth. This is largely because the nation’s wealth has been squirrelled away in an offshore account where HMRC cannot get it. No one has yet been convicted for this spectacular national fraud.
The government, though, has learned the lessons of how Britain’s imperialism kept a lid on seditious behaviour. It has organised a royal wedding, a royal diamond jubilee and spent £11bn on the Olympic Games to occupy our minds and prevent any unruly behaviour. Instead of wars, we now indulge in a crazed militarism where maimed and bewildered soldiers are paraded on our high streets to make the rest of us share in a perverted sense of national pride. It remains to be seen if such bread and circuses are enough to prevent a proper revolution.
As long as this is allowed to continue, the SNP doesn’t need a strategy for independence.