Rules, Britannia

The reality is that Britain’s fiscal troubles are not caused by people paying too little in taxes. Its overgrown government apparatus simply spends too much and has been temporarily spared the economic collapse seen elsewhere in Europe by the grace of God and the retained ability to print its own currency. But it is utterly anathema to the nation’s politicians and civil service that liberating the private sector, urging Britons to spend, invest and hire, is the path to prosperity.

Oscar Wilde once quipped, “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.” How interesting that an Irishman who spent time in an English prison should encapsulate the British condition so neatly.

And the bureaucracy’s growth is guarded and abetted by agents of HMRC, who behave as though they are in a trans-Atlantic rivalry with the IRS to see who can be more officious and obnoxious. For them, rules must be upheld, even if they do no bloody good.

This prioritization of compliance is complemented by a culture of surveillance, both figurative and literal. London has more closed-circuit security cameras than any city in the world, such that a person going about one’s business in the British capital is filmed 300 times per day. Meanwhile, inspectors creep around residential areas on behalf of the BBC, checking whether people are watching television without paying a licensing fee to support the public broadcaster.

Not to be outdone, the tax department has recruited schoolchildren to its spy ranks. This past summer, it was reported that HMRC was encouraging pupils as young as 11 to tell their teachers of “anyone in their local area who is not paying their fair share of tax.” Again, we must assume such an initiative is philosophical, born of a need to monitor and control, rather than practical — unless one actually believes the budget deficit could be closed by sending the nation’s youth about like the Village of the Damned kids with calculators.

Britain, which bravely stood up to dictators time and again through the centuries, including no more than a couple generations ago, now shrugs blithely as Big Nanny shoves her stout fingers into every aspect of citizens’ lives. It’s not so much that the state does all this — it has always been the impulse of governments to render individuals legible and accountable — it’s that today’s Britons don’t seem to mind.

Some say this modern, docile mindset is born of Britain’s shame over its imperial past. Whatever the cause, a people who used to rule two-fifths of the globe willingly line up to be counted, scrutinized, taxed and accused. A nation once famous for its will to conquer now prefers simply to queue.

Theo Caldwell, an international investor and broadcaster, has been a member of the New York Stock Exchange, the Chicago Board Options Exchange, the American Stock Exchange, and the Kansas City Board of Trade. He can be reached at [email protected].