Last week, volume one of my life of Margaret Thatcher won the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography. This made me feel greatly honoured, because I knew and loved Elizabeth — she was our country neighbour — and admired her own biographies greatly. It is also undeniably pleasant to get £5,000 without having to do any extra work, or even apply. This is the third monetary prize that my book has won, and I have been thrilled to discover that prizes attract no tax at all, so £5,000 is £5,000. Since ‘aggressive’ tax avoidance is the in thing, I would recommend that organisations wishing to confer extra rewards on staff should combine with others in their trade — for example, in banking — and invent, let us say, the Lehman Brothers Memorial Prize. They would then pool the enormous sums which in the old days they would have paid as bonuses and turn them into untaxed trade awards.
The political rhetoric against tax avoidance is a cover for greater state powers. The proposals in the Budget to let HMRC take money out of people’s bank accounts are a shocking way of avoiding due process, as the Commons Treasury Select Committee spotted last week. It does not follow, because money is due to the Revenue from X, that X’s money now simply belongs to them. In the row about tax avoidance by Gary Barlow of the band Take That, the BBC quotes an HMRC spokesman as saying that ‘anyone who uses a scheme which HMRC deems to be against the rules owes them money’. If he is correct, then the concept that people’s money is theirs until a court rules otherwise is replaced by arbitrary power.