Pay your taxes and save the planet

14 Mar 08
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY | At some point most afternoons I find myself flicking through galleries of photos for possible inclusion in the next day’s newspaper.

At some point most afternoons I find myself flicking through galleries of photos for possible inclusion in the next day’s newspaper.

There are the usual selection of bombings, crime scenes, politicians, the weather, celebrities, footballers and, increasingly, polar bears. These snarling carnivores must have hired the Saatchi brothers because their makeover has been remarkable — from savage seal slaughterers to poster creatures for the environment in a few bounds.

The trick has clearly impressed Alistair Darling, who this week tried to emulate our new ursine friends. And of course there is a touch of the snow bear about the chancellor: the fluffy white hair, the oh-so-gentle eyes, although the eyebrows are more suggestive of panda than polar.

And so, learning from the bears, Darling has tried to remake himself and the government in the image of green crusaders. And yes, just like the savage brutes of the slush-caps, you can pay heavily for getting too close.

Happily, Darling bounded into the greenery of the Commons for his first Budget as chancellor, his tousled white fur glistening, to announce the environmental measures which would help save the planet.

Gas-guzzling cars, air passengers et al took a hammering. The global menace that is the plastic shopping bag is facing a potential clampdown. That cuddly Darling may have been raising our taxes, but only for the good of the world.

Of course, there was the odd hiccup. The increase in fuel duty might have helped the planet but it made the political environment just a little too hot, so that one was parked for a few months. But don’t worry: he announced even higher charges to come when oil prices are lower.

Air taxes are, of course, flavour of the month — rather like the third runway at Heathrow, to which the government seems committed.

What exactly is the principle behind these hikes? Are they really intended to change behaviour through the principle of the polluter pays? Or is it simply to make people pay?

One can easily imagine the scene in the chancellor’s office some weeks back as officials briefed Darling on the tightness of the public finances.

‘Never mind, chancellor, there are always the good taxes. Green, plastic bag, cigarette and alcohol taxes; air and Chelsea tractor taxes. You don’t have to bury these on page 93 of the Budget notes. You can proclaim them loud and proud.’

‘But haven’t we always made these fiscally neutral?’ he asks.

‘Maybe so, chancellor, but has that effected the kind of behavioural change we need? Perhaps it’s time to forego our neutrality? And the money won’t half come in handy.’

‘By God, you’re right. We can slap on absolutely huge taxes. Air travel, vehicle excise, car sales — the works.’

‘Well, not too huge, chancellor. If we tax them too much, people will stop doing them.’

‘I thought that’s what we wanted: behavioural change.’

‘No, chancellor, we want the tax. The behaviour we want to change is people feeling sore about the tax rises. That’s the beauty of it. They pay more tax but can’t complain because they’re the ones in the wrong.’

Of course, Darling did not invent green taxes — air passenger duty was a Conservative wheeze. But one cannot help feeling just a little soiled by it all. For many voters, environmentalism represents the antithesis of old-fashioned politics. It is long-termist, altruistic, optimistic — an appeal to people’s better nature.

Now it has been co-opted to help fill the chancellor’s Budget holes. Will air taxes really stop people flying? Will the showroom tax on already absurdly expensive cars really deter their purchase?

At least Ken Livingstone’s planned £25 a day congestion charge for the largest cars looks like someone is actually trying to stamp them out rather than simply raise cash. Drive one of them into London every day and Ken will sting you for £500 a month. That’s enough to change the behaviour of all but the ultra-wealthy.

One should not be too harsh on Darling. The global credit crunch isn’t his fault, nor that the US economy is heading towards — or may already be in — recession. It is not his fault the Financial Services Authority failed to see the Northern Rock crisis coming and it is not his fault that tax receipts will fall short of expectations.

It is not even his fault that he inherited the Treasury from Gordon Brown, although he must certainly take his share of culpability for being a Brownite and he faces valid criticism for the hash he made of reforming capital gains tax and the non-domicile levy in the Pre-Budget Report.

The money has got to come from somewhere and after the spending splurges of earlier years and the wilful overestimation of tax receipts the Treasury was short on options.

Darling’s defenders will argue that the green taxes establish principles and they can be escalated over time.

In happier economic circumstances this might ring true. But, this year, green is nothing more than the colour of money — something which the Treasury finds in short supply.

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