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The Spectator's Notes

Hate tax havens? Try imagining a world without them

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: sheep; the smell of spring; my nephew’s art; FGM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

However wicked tax evasion is and however distasteful some tax avoidance may be, people should imagine a world without tax havens and see if they really want it. The prime reason that tax havens exist is that taxes in most countries are too high. If they did not exist, the competitive element would be reduced, and taxes would go up even more. The EU constantly complains about ‘unfair tax competition’, by which it really means just tax competition itself. Tax avoidance is what most of us try to do (see next item). Resentment about it is largely because the rich find it easier to achieve than the rest of us.

In my latest Notes, I mentioned that the theme of the South of England Agricultural Society this year is sheep. Last week, sheep entered our lives dramatically. We recently decided to buy the house and cottage next door to us. After deciding this, we discovered that George Osborne was imposing an extra 3 per cent of stamp duty on any ‘second home’ purchase not completed before 1 April this year. We had to rush to avoid being the Chancellor’s April Fools. Part of the money had to be raised by a mortgage. The man at the bank arranging it for us was extremely helpful and efficient but, not having bought a house for 20 years, I was amazed by the amount of legal and administrative fiddle-faddle that seems to have accumulated in that time. One traditional element — little more than a formality, I had imagined — was the visit of the bank’s valuers to our present house, which was our proposed security for the loan. Since the proportion of loan to value was not very high, no problem was expected. But with about four days left to go, the whole process mysteriously slowed. Eventually it turned out that, because there are sheep on our land which are not ours and because our land extends beyond ten acres, the bank’s mortgage underwriters had decided that our house was a commercial agricultural property which, for some reason, they would not lend against. It isn’t, and we get no money for the sheep, but it seemed impossible to find anyone with the authority to override this peculiar and falsely applied rule. Luckily, immense efforts by the determined man from the bank did at last prevail, and the mortgage money finally came through on the afternoon of 31 March. But it did seem for a few days as if the presence of sheep belonging to someone else was going to hand £27,000 of our money to Mr Osborne, which worked out at about £1,000 per fleecy friend. Only this week can we look out and smile at their newborn lambs gambolling.

Such a sad article in the Guardian by Ian Jack. He suffers from anosmia, the loss of sense of smell, brought on, in his case, by getting older. Ian claims, however, that it hasn’t much damaged his appreciation of spring because, unlike autumn, ‘Spring isn’t a season which has much of a smell to it.’ But spring does have a smell. In fact, I would say that smell is the first harbinger of spring. You notice it most at dawn and dusk. It is hard to describe, but unmistakable, not pungent but pervasive. It was if the pores of the earth were opening. I wonder if Ian has suffered from anosmia longer than he realises.

On Saturday, we gathered in the Blackshed Gallery, Salehurst, Sussex, for the opening of my nephew Sam Smith’s first commercial show of his paintings. Many readers will know the pleasure and embarrassment which attend private views of one’s family or friends. The person one knows wants also to be known as an artist, and one does not always feel confident that he or she will achieve this. It is sometimes difficult to say the right thing. In this case, however, there was no such anxiety, because Sam is autistic. It makes little difference to him what others think of his work, because he has, in that sense, no self-esteem. Sam attended his own private view, indeed, but kept his headphones on throughout. And because he is autistic, he has no self-consciousness about what we call art. He simply does it, with intense concentration and great physical engagement. A video accompanying the exhibition shows him thinking, squeezing, squirting, then delicately painting circles over the streaks he has made. He can’t do art for art’s sake, because he does not know what art is, yet he does it for no ulterior motive, because fame, money, culture mean nothing to him. What is he doing, then? When he was little, and spoke more than later, he divided his perception of objects into whether they resembled moons, snakes or helicopters (a honeysuckle head, for instance, being a helicopter), always interested in circles and spirals. He does something similar in his painting. He achieves what neurotypical creators long for but rarely attain — an absolutely honest engagement with the materials that expresses his consciousness of the world. In this sense, being autistic and being artistic are near allied.

Although you might not think so, female genital mutilation is a welcome subject to many on the left, because it is one of the few areas in which they can be rude about what they would never, in other contexts, dare to call ‘backward’ cultures. In their hierarchy of virtue, women’s rights trump even those of people oppressed by post-colonialism. Though I am not on the left, I’m against FGM too. But there are a couple of points to think about. One is that FGM is not an inexplicable primitive oddity: it is part of a wider culture which sees sexual relations in a completely different way from the choice- and pleasure-based principles of the modern West — as part of tribal relations, family, gender and religious duties and the care of children. So when we attack FGM, we are attacking much else besides. The other question is what will happen if our worry about FGM transfers to what we do not (yet) call male genital mutilation? Suppose some expert purports to show, with medical evidence, that male circumcision causes physical or psychological harm to boys, what then? Will one of the defining practices of both Islam and Judaism come under sustained attack? Will ‘MGM’ become, literally, a casus belli? We had better think carefully.

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