In the UK general election of December 2019, a majority of people voted for a Conservative government, partly because they wanted to leave Europe, and partly because they were reluctant to pay higher levels of tax. But a few months later, when the NHS became even more obviously vital than it always is – during the coronavirus pandemic – people were willing to give tens of millions of pounds to NHS charities, via a range of individual human faces, celebrity and otherwise. Giving money in this way is different to contributing to a faceless tax system. There is now an individual human face and a story to tell. Never mind that the money is coming too late, and cannot be efficiently planned for, as with regular tax income. During the 2019 election the attitude to taxation amongst certain sections of the press was summed up by The Mail on Sunday, which was sanctioned for falsely claiming that Labour was planning to scrap capital gains tax relief on main homes. Now the same tabloids which supported Boris Johnson against parties that apparently wanted to take all your money in tax, can show front pages with headlines about generosity.
People love to focus on an individual to tell a story. Tax systems are hard to tell stories about. Any large scale system requires a specific angle if you’re going to get a narrative out of it. Strange as it may sound for a writer to say, not everything needs to be a story. It makes more sense to pay tax into the NHS than give to NHS charities. Charity tells a story, but this story is inefficient and unpredictable in the way it provides resources. Note all the companies that have stepped up to produce protective equipment, who nevertheless find that there is no organisation to feed their products into. The greetings card company my wife works for took to producing face shields, only to find that emails to government offering these products went unanswered.
As a writer I do of course know the power of stories, to explore and share aspects of human experience in an empathetic way. After all, who can understand all the statistics of hospitalisations and deaths, without hearing about some of the actual people involved. However, like any other power, there is the potential for misuse. Charity efforts are of course laudable, but the fact remains that decisions taken and votes cast in 2019, resulted in frantic preparations for a no deal Brexit, which by diverting money and time, damaged the capacity of the UK to respond to an unexpected emergency. Stories of charitable success ultimately serve to distract from bad choices involving underfunding, and excessive and unwise flag waving during 2019.
As a writer I say – beware the story, which like any other medicine can have side effects.