New Internationalist

Why I gatecrashed David Hartnett’s dinner party

Last week, some friends and I burst in on a speech from the retired HMRC boss Dave Hartnett at a tax dodgers conference. The video of our action has since gone viral. Here's why I did it:

I stood as a Green candidate in local elections last year. If I had bought dinner and drinks for a potential voter, I would have been breaking the law and I would have been disqualified. If you buy someone who has power over you nice things in the hope they will do you a favour, then this is bribery. It’s pretty simple. When people do it in developing countries, the British establishment rolls its eyes.

Dave Hartnett was, until the end of July, Britain’s senior tax collector. He was also the civil servant who was most wined and dined. You can choose to believe one of two things: either the senior tax man has the most scintillating, entertaining dinner table chat of everyone at Whitehall; or there’s something more sinister going on.

Next, take look at the deals that Mr Hartnett has signed off on over the years: the £10 million ($16.2 million) he let Goldman Sachs off may seem a lot, but it is piffling next to the £6 billion ($9.7 billion) that Vodafone is said to have been allowed to scratch from their accounts. In total, the amount of tax owed by the extremely rich whom Mr Hartnett has let slip through the net over his years in post, must run to many billions of pounds.

I think it is fair to assume that his numerous invitations to these dinners are not the product of Mr Hartnett’s mastery of small talk. Or think about it from Mr Hartnett’s point of view. When we burst into the dining room, the people there were drinking port. I imagine it was pretty nice port. And if he is the most wined and dined civil servant, then I imagine this isn’t the first time he has accepted what is in effect a valuable gift from someone he is supposed to regulate. I imagine he has become quite used to the life of the mega-rich.

There are various words for this process. One term sometimes used is ‘regulatory capture’: the regulator ends up too close to those they are regulating. But I like simple words. So I’ll go for ‘corruption’.

The impact cannot be underestimated. There are the lives ruined by government cuts, the gross inequality. We all know the stories – or if you don’t, then you need to start looking around you. It is important to remember that there are many, many reasons that made austerity just one course of action, a choice. None of these cuts are necessary. And the easiest way to understand this is that the tax dodged through Dave Hartnett’s dodgy deals would have easily covered the cost of these cuts.

But there is something else that it is important to understand too. The fact that this was just one choice means that these choices are made by real people. And those people aren’t on a different planet, or even in a different country. But they get away with thinking that they are. They surround themselves with smokescreens to block out the poverty, and they congratulate themselves on their mutual genius. They flit from conference centre to hotel to air-conditioned office, and they insulate themselves from the society they are wrecking.

But they share an island with us. They are not too far away. And once in a while, we get a chance to puncture their bubble: ideally, with mockery. Of course, social change is a complex process. It’s not enough to point and laugh at the élite. But it is necessary.

That’s why I showed up in a bow tie last week in Oxford: to make fun of a man destroying lives with his corruption – not because what he is doing isn’t serious, but because it is, because laughing is the best way there is to undermine. What we couldn’t predict was the reaction. Robert Venables QC, host of the tax dodging conference we were disturbing, threatened to ‘set the dogs on us’, and called us ‘trespassing scum’. It was camera gold: his boiling rage showed how unused he is to being challenged, how unaccountable his life-destroying industry is.

But while we may laugh, we must remember the serious point here. My friend recently had her Tourette medicine cut. She now has regular involuntary sudden movements – ticks. She finds social interaction much more difficult: one of the richest countries on earth says it can no longer afford the drugs she needs. The people responsible for this are drinking fine port at a dinner near you, concocting their next assault on your friends. 

Adam Ramsay blogs at brightgreenscotland.org.

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