Documents leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca have exposed the shady tax arrangements of the world’s political and financial elite, re-opening the festering wound of wealth inequality. Many high-profile figures were named in the #PanamaPapers, from Chinese president Xi Jinping to Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodóvar and, as journalists combed the documents for names, it became apparent that Ian Cameron – the late father of Prime Minister David Cameron – had set up a fund, Blairmore Holdings, facilitated by the Panamanian firm. When challenged on the issue David Cameron’s office released a series of strategically-worded statements, first declaring the issue a “private matter” then suggesting that the prime minister or his family “do not benefit from any offshore funds” before Cameron himself conceded, in an interview with ITN that he had sold shares in Blairmore Holdings worth around £31,000 in January 2010.
The news that our prime minister had profited from a scheme designed to avoid paying UK tax was met with a predictable round of eye-rolling from the British public. The same sense of resigned sarcasm, which pervaded previous revelations about malpractice in the banking sector and MP’s expenses, descended on this most recent scandal. We’ve made our resignation known in the form of guppy-faced Cameron memes on Facebook and on Twitter, with #CurseDavidCameron, where users placed a variety of ‘very British’ curses on the prime minister. Our cynicism is well earned – a long history of political scandal has taught us to mistrust our leaders, but by accepting these abuses as a fact of life, we do ourselves and our democracy a disservice.
When we respond with sarcasm to the news that the prime minister profited from a scheme designed to avoid tax and lied about it to the public, we contribute to a culture that allows these injustices to go on unpunished. Cameron has claimed that his late father’s arrangements were completely legal and that the £31,000 dividend he received (which, incidentally, is more than the average U.K salary) was subject to all relevant U.K taxes. But legal isn’t the same as ethical – and wouldn’t we rather the two concepts were better aligned?
The French have a wonderful phrase, noblesse oblige, which basically means that the privileged few have a moral responsibility to contribute to the welfare of the many. Our modern democracy is founded, in part, on this idea – that those who have enjoyed a life of privilege or success must contribute to the society that facilitated that success. That those who own the factories must contribute to the welfare of those who work in them. The Panama Papers have revealed what we already suspected: that the world’s financial and political elite will go to great lengths to avoid their moral responsibilities.
The figures involved in the leaks are incidental. David Cameron’s single dividend of £31,000 is beside the point – our prime minister is the recipient of multi-generational privilege, a benefactor of a first-class education paid for by his father’s investments. While our democracy is founded on the concept of noblesse oblige, our capitalist economy is founded on the idea that wealth accrued by those at the very top will ‘trickle down’ to those below, in the form of opportunities and public services paid for by taxation. Public services which we’re constantly being told we can’t afford.
The Panama Papers represent a sobering reminder that the top 1% of society will do whatever it takes to avoid their responsibility to the other 99%. In 2011, revolutionary fervour inspired the Occupy movement to take root across the world, to protest income inequality, financial malpractice and austerity. Back then, we didn’t let our cynicism give way to inaction. We allowed ourselves to be outraged. This week in Iceland, 10% of the country’s electorate took to the streets to demand the resignation of their prime minister – and it seems (at least for now) that they’ve been successful. Iceland’s Pirate Party, which supports direct democracy, greater transparency and asylum for the likes of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, looks the party most likely to form a government in the event of a snap election.
As I write this, hundreds of protestors are assembled outside Downing Street calling for Cameron’s resignation. The protest, organised shortly after the Panama Papers leak, originally focused on pressuring the government to close tax loopholes but has since morphed, demanding David Cameron’s resignation. Jeremy Corby and Labour have been quick to pounce on the issue – accusing Cameron of hypocrisy after talking tough on tax dodgers while deceiving the public about the source of his own wealth. Just today, Cameron addressed the concerns about his tax affairs by joking that it had been “a bad week”, which was greeted with riotous laughter from members of a Conservative party conference.
When the conservative party laughs at David’s joke, they’re laughing with a man – our prime minster, who claimed during the last general election that ‘we’re all in it together’, about his father’s determination to avoid paying his fair share. The issue of the late Ian Cameron has also been central to this scandal, with the PM attempting to diffuse criticism by waxing poetic about his love for his father. Widespread calls for the Prime Minister’s resignation are justified, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the wider, systemic issues. The political establishment is adept at absorbing and dissipating criticism – if we were, figuratively, handed David Cameron’s head tomorrow, it would simply serve to diffuse dissent and the status quo would go on unchanged.
Cameron is just one man among many – and if we want to do this, if we want to take on a global financial and political elite determined to shirk their social responsibilities, we need to do it right. We need to focus our efforts on the culture of entitlement and to return a sense of noblesse oblige to our democracy. Our resignation must give way to action. In the wake of these revelations, we owe ourselves more than cynicism – we owe ourselves revolutionary outrage.