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Things can quickly get out of hand. It started with questions being asked about how much tax Mr Livingstone actually paid. Boris’ tax arrangements were inevitably brought into the argument. And then came Mr Osborne, who has indicated that the shadow cabinet will happily release all of their tax returns – a move that would, by necessity, be reciprocated by the Labour front bench.
And thus we have the next great upsurge of triviality on our hands. Precious column inches will be devoted to who earned what, and how much tax they paid on what income. We might even hear that some of them are “out of touch” – a cliche that has been worn to within a cubic milimetre of nothingness.
Frankly, I couldn’t care less. Even the current crop of multi-millionaire front bench Tories are not so wealthy that their tax arrangements materially affect the nation’s finances. If it turned out that Francis Maude arranged with the HMRC to pay his tax bill in monopoly money, the whole exercise would still be of questionable political importance.
If this was a one-off distraction then it wouldn’t matter. But these fundamentally pointless character tests are quickly becoming the very stuff of politics. Historians will look back upon our generation and note that just when our economy was coming apart at the seems, and millions were being thrown on the scrapheap, the media was obsessing over who built a moat at public expense, and whether or not a few hundred grand ended up in the wrong pockets.
Before expenses, it was cash for peerages – as though any of the life peers, paying or non-paying, actually deserve to be voting on our laws. In the future, I imagine, politicians will begin publishing their school reports, so as to demonstrate that they never stuck chewing gum to the bottom of their desks during their adolescence. And somewhere in between the very many discussions about whether individual members of the political class are good or naughty, we might, very occasionally get the opportunity to ask what on earth politicians intend to do about the fact that 3 million of our citizens are without work.
The rise and rise of scandal mongering can only be explained in part by the greater intensity of media scrutiny. A far more important factor is the general depolitisation of politics. These days, her majesty’s official opposition only ever seems to want to talk about the “competence” of the governing parties. This was evident in Labour’s pathetic response to the government’s deeply unpopular attempts to radically expand the govenrment’s power to snoop. Yvette Cooper meandered on about the government’s “incompetence”, and its need to “get a grip”, while leaving us none the wiser with regard to what Labour actually believed the policy on internet-snooping ought to be. Likewise, when David Cameron temporarily scuppered the Fiscal Union treaty, Ed Miliband offered us no clue as to what he thought about the great issues at stake – namely fiscal union and financial regulation – but did, of course, manage to tell us that David had handled the diplomacy very badly.
The focus on such matters as politicians’ tax returns both reflects and sustain the current vacuous, non-political parliamentary culture. These upsurges of interest in the personal conduct of ministers and MPs draw attention away from the real issues for which political leaders ought to be accountable. And they enable the various front benches to do battle with one another without having to go to the trouble of establishing real and important areas of disagreement.
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