Panama scandal forces Britain to open up on taxes

[LONDON] The rush of revelations about British politicians' finances this week prompted by the Panama Papers leak marks a shift from traditional deference to Scandinavian-style openness, commentators say.

Prime Minister David Cameron led the way by releasing a summary of his taxes for the past six years on Sunday and he told parliament that British leaders or "potential prime ministers" should do the same.

Finance minister George Osborne and London mayor Boris Johnson, both seen as possible successors to Mr Cameron, quickly followed suit on Monday, along with main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

"Welcome to real democracy... Disclose or die," warned Matthew Parris, a former MP from Mr Cameron's Conservative Party and columnist for the Times newspaper.

"Times are changing. An era is upon us when trust and deference are gone," he said, foreseeing a time when all MPs will have to publish their tax details.

"Tax is the new sex," Mr Parris added - a reference to the frequent sex scandals beloved of British tabloids that shook up the political world in the 1990s.

British MPs currently have to declare a range of financial interests to parliament every year but only if these could affect their political choices.

They are not obliged to go into great detail on the amounts and only have to reveal shareholdings above £70,000 (S$107,431).

Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg moaned it was "a pity that we have lost privacy" and said he expected that he too would soon have to publish his own tax return.

"It's very clear that all MPs within a year or two will be publishing their returns and I'm not going to be the one holding out against that," he said in an interview with the BBC.

"To some extent it is politicians' fault because we lost the trust of the public over the expenses affair." Revelations about expenses claimed by lawmakers caused a major scandal in 2009 and resulted in five members of the lower House of Commons and two members of the upper House of Lords going to jail for fraud.

Experts said the immediate political fallout from the current scandal would not be anything as serious and the calls from campaigners and some Labour MPs for Cameron to resign were unlikely to succeed.

"It looks for the moment that David Cameron probably has drawn a line here and the story will now move on to the general issue of how much people earn, how much he earns, how much other Conservatives earn and whether that somehow needs to be taxed more," London School of Economics professor Tony Travers told AFP.

Mr Cameron's image has, however, taken a beating from the delay in revealing that he held shares in his late father's offshore fund and received money from his parents that may have skirted inheritance tax.

In the eyes of many observers, the disclosures have reinforced an image of Mr Cameron and his inner circle as a rich Conservative elite governing for the rich.

The left-leaning Daily Mirror tabloid on Tuesday called the revelations by pro-austerity Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne "grotesque" and ran a front-page story pointing out that Osborne personally benefited from a tax cut for the wealthy that he himself enacted.

"We are not and never were 'all in it together' as this wealthy pair pretended," it said in an editorial.

The Guardian said Mr Cameron "will find it harder to shake off the sense that he embodies a privileged class who benefit most from offshore tax regimes".

The Financial Times pointed to the full transparency in Norway, Sweden and Finland but warned about the current "frenzy" surrounding British politicians' tax affairs and called for "a sense of proportion".

William Hague, a former Conservative leader, said it would now be "very difficult" to resist disclosure.

"We live in an age where digital technology and a lack of trust in government, internationally, come together to demand greater transparency all the time," he said.


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