There is an interesting kerfuffle brewing in the upper echelons of the UK tax industry, among senior tax barristers. These men, Queen’s Counsel as they are known by virtue of their formal stamp of approval from no less than the UK head of state herself, are the be-all-and-end-all of UK tax advice. Supposedly, no one speaks more authoritatively on the application of UK tax law than they do. And it turns out that a number of them have been systematically giving wrong advice, because it pays much better to tell tax avoiders that their plans work than it does to tell tax avoiders to go away and pay their taxes. This has all been revealed by whistle-blower Jolyon Maugham in a blog post – and the current state of the ensuing brou-ha-ha is described in this piece by the Society of Trusts and Estates Practitioners.
What we at Women For Tax Justice find interesting about this is the expressly gendered way in which the discussion has been framed. All over the (admittedly obscure) corners of Twitter where such matters are debated, Maugham’s label for these tax-cheat’s-tax-cheats, “The Boys”, has been adopted without question. And it is easy to see why if you look at membership of London’s five leading tax barrister outfits, Pump Court Tax Chambers, Gray’s Inn Tax Chambers, 15 Old Square, Temple Tax Chambers, and 11 New Square. There is only one female QC among them, and she appears to have a litigation-focused practice so probably has little time for telling expensive lies about the law to tax planners in order to buy herself another Bentley.
This is not to suggest that men are somehow genetically more likely than women to be venal, or to be drawn to professional practices that are low on integrity and high on personal reward, often at the expense of society’s poorest and most vulnerable. But it does tell an important story about privilege. Because no doubt these men do not feel that they are behaving wrongly, and their moral self-satisfaction comes in part from being top dogs in their field. If your wrist cannot be slapped because you are the final arbiter, it is very easy to fall into a habit of thought whereby you cannot see it as needing to be slapped. The exercise of power and privilege is self-legitimizing in the minds of those who exercise it.
This is no mere philosophising; it is the practical reality. Suppose Mr. Maugham were to report this QC whose opinion was “at best incompetent, at worst criminally fraudulent” to the professional tribunal that could in theory call “The Boys” to account. Who is to gainsay the QC when he says his advice represented a reasonably arguable position? It is after all the job of these men to present what their clients do to ‘plan’ or avoid their taxes in as reasonable a light as possible, and tax QCs do it better than anyone. For a tax QC to say that his advice represented a reasonably arguable position is for him to make what is in effect a self-truthifying statement.
This is what happens when accountability is sidelined and when privilege is permitted to be systematic and self-governing: truth and justice are subordinated to that privilege. And as the gender make-up of the top end of the UK tax bar demonstrates, there is no more obviously systematic and self-governing privilege than male privilege.