mid the cobbled passageways and tumbling tenements of the Italian city of Perugia, it’s possible to daydream you are in the middle ages. You are surrounded by medieval art and architecture. And then you think: hold on, what happened to the Renaissance?
Sure, there are some imposing private palaces from the period 1300-1500, and sure Raphael left half a fresco in a tiny chapel. But it’s not Florence. The money was clearly here at some point but, some time after 1300, the artistic, cultural and scientific riches moved somewhere else. By 1500, the city was “smaller, poorer and politically narrower” than 200 years before, writes historian Sarah Rubin Blanshei.
Why? Because the rich did not pay their taxes. The Perugian elite became a closed stratum of mafiosi, earning their money from mercenary work abroad, jealously guarding their family inheritance, stifling social mobility. Sound familiar?
As David Cameron’s fiasco over the Panama Papers collides with George Osborne’s over the budget, the danger is that we frame these merely as political scandals.
In fact, the Panama Papers point to a deeper sickness. Globalised capitalism has become an organised and legalised form of corruption, in which the work of the manager, the inventor and the entrepreneur come second to that of people whose wealth “works for them” – preferably in a jurisdiction nobody can see.
If you listen to Cameron’s defenders, their logic follows three contours: he did nothing illegal, nothing unparliamentary and nothing wrong.
I do not doubt his decision to invest in an offshore fund was legal.
That he failed to register his shares in Blairmore on becoming an MP, and lobbied for the protection of offshore trusts while being an undeclared beneficiary of one, does merit investigation by Parliament.
But it’s the insistence by the apopleptic right that he should not be criticised over tax avoidance – that “everybody does it” – that we should register as a kind of collective Marie Antoinette moment for the UK’s social elite.
If someone walked into a pub and announced they had found a way to scam the benefit system, they would face opprobrium or a swift, anonymous call to the benefit cheats hotline.
But a large part of the UK financial industry is dedicated to scamming the rules whereby both individuals and companies pay tax on income. London is home to literally hundreds of advisory companies – many of them registered professionals in finance, accountancy and the law – whose purpose is to do only this.