The Great Tax Robbery

One Uncutter’s review of the book The Great Tax Robbery by Private Eye journalist Richard Brooks.

Back in late 2010, UK Uncut began with a discussion between friends in a pub. Someone had brought a copy of that week’s Private Eye. Buried in the back of the satirical magazine was a short article about a deal that HMRC had recently made with Vodafone, settling an ongoing tax dispute. Although the rest of the media had ignored the complex deal, Private Eye had realized the significance: at the same time as the government was announcing unprecedented cuts to public services, they were letting Vodafone off paying a £6bn tax bill. It was an article that got us angry, inspired the first UK Uncut action and sparked a movement that eventually pushed tax avoidance by rich corporations and individuals to the top of the political agenda.

That initial article was written by investigative journalist Richard Brooks, who this week published his first book The Great Tax Robbery, a scathing attack on this government’s collusion with high level tax avoidance by the super wealthy. Brooks is better placed than anyone to expose the dodgy dealings at the top of HMRC – because he used to work there. A former tax inspector, Brooks personally knew Dave Hartnett (architect of the cosy deals with big companies) and understands from first hand experience the often torturously complicated wheezes that the super wealthy come up with to hide their money.

Tax is complicated and most journalists are too lazy to crunch numbers. Richard Brooks is different: he’s painstakingly followed the money to discover the dodgy deals HMRC are cutting with big businesses. He’s also savvy enough not to be fooled by George Osborne’s recent rhetoric about clamping down on tax avoidance. He understands that it’s a sleight of hand – as Osborne pretends to be getting tough on the tax dodgers, he’s actually making it much easier for his friends in industry to stash their fortunes offshore.

The Great Tax Robbery is a must-read expose of the grubby underbelly of the UK tax avoidance industry. It’s a world in which corporate barristers advertise offshore scams, where corporate CEOs devise entire business plans around tax dodging, where high level collusion between government and tax dodgers results in ‘business-friendly’ laws that cost the country billions. It’s a complicated subject but, as you’d expect from a Private Eye journalist, Brooks is never dull to read. He writes with pace and conviction, a wry sense of humour and a sharp eye for the dark absurdity of the tax avoiders’ desperate tricks.

The book is also a trenchant defense of taxation as a tool for ensuring a just society. Brooks begins his book with a quotation from Oliver Wendall Homes: “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.” And Brooks is clear to outline just what a fantastic bargain this deal is: “For every pound I earn I will pay around 7 pence for immediate access to professional healthcare for my family, 5 pence for my children’s education, 2 pence for living in relative security and 11 pence for pensions and social security for my compatriots.” Brooks shows that tax represents a cheaper and more efficient way to provide basic services than any private system ever devised. “If it were a club,” he writes, “only a fool would not join.”

But the super wealthy are enjoying the benefits of the club without paying their membership fee. These spongers include not only rich individuals like Philip Green, Lord Rothermere (owner of the Daily Mail) and virtually every Premiership footballer, but also countless corporations that make money in our economy: Apple, Starbucks, Vodafone, Cadbury, Google, Boots, Nike, Barclays and too many others to name.

In an age of phone-hacking and tabloid celebrity obsession, Brooks’ tireless work to expose some of the most scandalous corruption of our age is a beacon for what good investigative journalism can look like. It’s fair to say that without Brooks there would have been no UK Uncut and the secrets of the tax avoiders, and the government’s collusion with their mucky schemes, would have remained firmly in the shadows. The Great Tax Robbery is a call to arms for a tax system where we all pay our fair share: a reminder of what we’re fighting for, and who the enemy is.