Rules, Britannia

“I’m British, I know how to queue.” — Arthur Dent, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

LONDON — The England of Shakespeare, Newton and Churchill has become a country more concerned with compliance than accomplishment. There is little that evinces this decline so clearly as the conduct of the British tax department and the general attitude of servility toward the nation’s public sector.

Last week, Britain’s coalition government conceded that their plan for closing the budget deficit will not be completed by 2015, as promised. Among the remedies proposed by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and others is the standby of sticky-fingered government-types the world over: ensuring taxpayers pony up their “fair share.”

There is no way an intelligent man like Osborne believes that wringing yet more money out of people who often find themselves forking over 60 percent of their income to the government is a practical solution. In fairness, he has also proposed spending cuts and a reduction in borrowing. Even so, the fixation of the nation’s governing class on squeezing every ha’penny they feel they are owed from citizens is animated by the modern British fetish for control and compliance.

Along with new measures to raid Britons’ bank accounts in other countries, London’s Telegraph newspaper carried a front-page report that “tax hitmen” will be deployed to pore over citizens’ spending records, to assess whether their purchasing seems consistent with the tax they have reported. Proponents of such Kafkaesque silly-bears suggest the measure could raise as much as 10 billion pounds.

Now, in the time it takes to say 10 billion pounds, a welfare state like Britain can easily spend 10 billion pounds. And that assumes the figure is net: Will the snoops of HM Revenue and Customs be working on this file for free? If not, be assured that their corpulent enforcement mechanism can gobble down the expected returns at a rate that would put Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote to shame.

Recently, a British family known to me, having just paid a tax installment of over a quarter-million pounds, was found to be a few days behind on a separate, tiny tax bill amounting to a few hundred quid. The result was a stream of government vehicles, filled like clown cars with collection agents, pulling up to their front door.

“Ooh, this is a lovely place, isn’t it?” one sneered to the lady of the house, scrutinizing her home with that combination of urgency and self-satisfaction peculiar to public sector scolds. She responded that there was no arithmetic whereby the petrol, paperwork and professional hours consumed by the squadron of snotty civil servants pawing about her yard was justified by the piddling amount they came to collect.

But again, it wasn’t about the money, it was about the rules. And when rules are the priority, government enforcers will descend on a suburban family about a matter of a couple hundred bob as though they had cornered Al Capone for tax evasion.