Iain Murray: Life’s certainties: death, taxes and compensation

When the taxman takes your money, it is nice to think that he spends it on a good cause. But look out, he could be giving it away in court cases.

I am self-employed and therefore, twice a year, the taxperson comes along, taps me on the shoulder, holds out an importunate and grubby palm and demands, on pain of imprisonment, that I hand over my savings.

It’s a painful ritual and as the taxperson saunters off, patting the wallet in his breast pocket, now bulging with the loot that I never fail mistakenly to believe that I earned for my own use, I find solace in idle thoughts about how the money will be spent. Left to myself it would no doubt have been frittered away on a family holiday or squandered on augmenting my sparse wardrobe. Left to the Government, it goes on much the same things, but for some other person much more deserving than I. At least that’s how I like to see the money that was so briefly mine being used.

So as I sit at my word processor trying to fill the black hole left by the taxperson, my thoughts turn to pregnant service women who have sued for compensation and are now sunning themselves on Mauritian beaches with the proceeds extracted from my bank account. I think, too, of the Nigerian-born policeman, now richer to the tune of &£20,000 – thanks to compensation he received to assuage his hurt at seeing a postcard of bare-breasted South African women. In truth, it was not the breasts that offended him, nor their nakedness, but the message written on the back of the card – “To all the lads – South Africa’s answer to Mayfair” (Mayfair being the men’s magazine of the same name but different breasts). A member of the Old Bill holidaying in South Africa sent the card to Dover police station, and the message was intended to be a joke. But in a modern UK joking is a dangerous business.

Those of us tempted to essay a pleasantry on a postcard are warned of the risks by the legal profession, the po-faced creeps who profit from real or imagined hurt in this climate of political correctness. One oily notary, licking his lips and rubbing his hands says: “There is no cap on compensation claims, and individual employees as well as firms can be sued.”

He adds: “The message to all employees is to consider carefully the postcards they send, and to all employers to treat postcards or posters that contain any racial or sexual content with great care.”

Unfortunately, there are still people who are unaware that the joke has been outlawed. Daryl Barke, for instance, a full-time village baker and part-time humorist, put up a poster in his shop window advertising “English Sticks – None of that French rubbish in here”. Barke, a man who believes that a good joke, unlike an English Stick, never stales, kept the notice in the window for two years until suddenly he received a visit from the Old Bill – one of the few on leave from suing his colleagues for sexual and racial harassment – and was told to take down the sign or risk prosecution under the 1976 Race Relations Act. A member of the public had complained and the police said they were duty bound to investigate the matter.

The disturbing aspect of this otherwise silly incident is that somewhere in Wickford, Essex, where the baker plies his trade, there is a person with a soul so dead that he or she not merely bridles at an obvious joke, but takes the time and trouble to sneak along to the police and lodge a formal complaint. When the avatars of political correctness finally form themselves into a uniformed arm of the state you can be sure that there will be no shortage of quislings.

In truth, of course, you can no more outlaw the joke than repeal humour itself. Strike at the joke, and it shall, like the mythic Phoenix, burn itself to ashes and spring forth with new life to repeat the former one. Not that jokes necessarily come cheap. Brooding on the uses to which my tax is put, I console myself with the happy thought that just a fraction of it now lines the pocket of my old pal Bob “The Prof” Worcester.

Another old friend of mine, Harold Lind, tells me that he sees the tax he pays to Islington Council as an entertainment duty. And it is in that spirit that I see the money I have just paid to the Inland Revenue. I like to think of it helping to compensate the Treasury for the &£1.5 million spent on the People’s Panel, a giant focus group run by Worcester’s company Mori.

According to The Mirror last Wednesday (July 25), the 5,000-strong panel subjected to the science and skill of the pollsters revealed, inter alia, that the public prefers telephones to be answered by people rather than machines (that intelligence cost &£300,000); that women find Mr Blair “unappealing” (&£63,800); that the public were anxious about cloning (&£60,000); that people don’t like charges for car parking (&£29,050); and that older women worry about crime and teenagers about education (&£63,800).

Now I realise that, as jokes go, these are not in the Oscar Wilde class nor even in the Christmas cracker category, but they are funny. When every penny we earn from January until June goes in taxes, and &£300,000 of that is spent on finding that people prefer people to machines, there is no alternative to laughter.

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