In normal times, when it hangs around in the periphery of politics, tax can seem a dullish grey thing. Revolts against it tend to come out of that periphery too: sensible people keep their heads down and pay up. Only the agitated right of the white middle class, angry at the poor getting its dough, can summon any passion for it.
But times are not normal and today we are faced with an extremely rare thing: protests in favour of paying tax, a veritable springtime of tax returners. These dutiful citizens packing the squares of Reykjavik and - heaven forbid - London really only want to know one thing: why they have to pay tax but lots of very rich people don't.
The rich, it's fair to say, are probably unaccustomed to and thus unprepared for such polite scrutiny. So they dithered marvellously - our Hamlet-lite PM most of all. To publish or not to publish, that was the question. Only late last week, as the evidence of the Panama Papers and opposition pressure mounted, did the usual defences start to emerge.
Primus inter pares here - the inegalitarian go-to - is the familiar argument from victimhood. Boris Johnson got himself in a bit of bother by saying rich folk are the fiscal equivalent of saints, working miracles on the public purse for a doubting or even prejudiced public. The private accident of wealth should by no means lead to public scorn, he argued. David Cameron, in one of quite a few soliloquies on his family income, declared himself "lucky enough to be wealthy." Be it curse or blessing, wealth is apparently just the luck of the draw. The rich can no more choose their family backgrounds than other "put upon minorities" can. Thus the Tories' defence of inheritance reaches dazzling new heights. No mention though of correcting that lottery.
The same Johnson of City Hall flatly refused to say off shore tax havens were immoral. "It depends what you do with them," he said, which is true of anything in a way. If you use a nuclear missile head as a Christmas tree I suppose you're not doing anything wrong. The question is whether such gargantuan power should ever accrue in the hands of a single family. And one can hardly blame people for asking what the long-term social consequences of this habit of accidental wealth accumulation might be.
The British are fond of claiming they acquire things in a fit of absent-mindedness, like the contents of the British Museum or India for example. It's as if the sum total of our historical mea culpa is a slow "Oops." That barely phatic utterance tends to act as cover against deeper interrogation, specifically the question of what to do now about it all.
But no, that's envy, the second wall of sandbags defending the wealthy from the rising tide of the tax-prone mob. "They hate even a hint of wealth," we were told of tax campaigners yesterday in the commons. I'd say the Panama Papers offer more than a mere hint, but hate doesn't quite capture the response. It's more exasperation at the fact that anyone could fail to see their wealth is not wholly deserved. And if it ends up in your hands by accident - a result of the hard graft of others or a social coup - it should in part be redistributed. This is not after all victimless: the more wealth concentrates at the top the worse things get at the bottom (contra the myth that the more mega-yachts bought by the rich, the more jobs for the poor at the port).
"We've done nothing wrong," goes the last line of defence. After all, the PM just got a few presents from his family. One could, by the time he had to publish some information about his taxes, sense the creaking urge of the media to get back to bashing Europe and foreigners. This was all getting a bit close to the bone. After all, tax planning is as natural as family planning. The question of how laws written by wealthy middle aged white men are used by those same wealthy middle aged white men for their own benefit hardly arises.
There's the rub: we tend to hold the rich to different and much more relaxed standards than we do the poor. By the time the PM released info of his Oedipal endowments to the public, several news outfits were starting to feel decidedly sorry for him. Yes of course, the long-awaited summary was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Still, it was nice he'd made the effort. Best let sleeping tax dodges lie.
Benefit fraud amounts to £1.3 billion a year at the taxpayer's expense (less actually than the £1.6 billion left unclaimed). HMRC estimates that tax avoidance costs it £30 billion a year. Other estimates are far higher. Yet it is the poor - because they are more visible, because the papers exploit them, and because they have fewer defences - who receive all the scorn. When the rich play the system it's a "natural" part of life. If the poor do the same it's the delinquent or degenerate result of "welfare dependency." Tax and spending are, in the final instance, class issues. But they are class issues in which those who command capital too often also hold all the cards. Ultimately it's easier and more gratifying to hate the poor since bullying them is more likely to get results. They have fewer lawyers after all.
It's not that people envy the rich. That accusation is, apart from being insulting, rather wearying. Lefties don't object to all forms of competition either. They just object to one of the competitors being shot in both feet while the other is allowed to jump the gun. People are naturally competitive and collaborative in equal measure. It's the context that's important. And in our case the race is rigged.