William Hague: Don't judge politicians by their tax returns

Winston Churchill

Voters should beware of judging politicians by their tax returns, because some of Britain’s greatest leaders – including Winston Churchill – had “chaotic” personal finances, former Conservative leader William Hague has argued.

The chancellor, George Osborne, and Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, on Monday became the latest public figures to publish details of their tax affairs, after the furore created by the leak of the Panama Papers.

Lord Hague said the drive towards transparency was impossible to resist; but speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said the public should “not expect everybody to be perfect, or expect everybody to be normal”.

“The consequence of greater transparency in tax, in medical records, whatever else it may be, among leaders, is that there has to be a maturity in the public debate about those things and a recognition that the circumstances and habits of people who are effective leaders will vary greatly,” he said.

“We have had leaders in the history of our country who have had chaotic personal finances, but have been brilliant at managing the nation’s finances,” he said.

He cited William Pitt the Younger, of whom he has written a biography, and wartime leader Winston Churchill, as great British leaders whose financial affairs were less than straightforward, arguing that Churchill’s tax return would have been “harder to defend in parliament than David Cameron’s”.

The young Churchill wrote to his brother: “The only thing that worries me in life is – money. Extravagant tastes, an expensive style of living, small and diminished resources – these are fertile sources of trouble.” A recent book on his finances suggested he spent £40,000 a year on casinos, and he had notoriously high bar bills.

Hague added: “If parliament only consisted of people who had the simplest possible personal finances, then we would have a very one-dimensional parliament.”

He said the publication of details of the prime minister’s tax affairs over the weekend had shown “as it turns out, there is nothing untoward, and certainly nothing against the rules”.

Some MPs have expressed concern about the prime minister’s decision to lift the lid on his personal finances, fearing that it will only fuel the public’s demand for transparency – which some see as motivated by envy or voyeurism, rather than fairness.

Hague said such transparency should be extended “in careful steps”, adding: “Let us see how it works over a number of years.”

Cameron took the unprecedented step after a week of mounting pressure over his involvement in Blairmore Holdings, the offshore investment fund set up by his father, Ian.

The prime minister had initially dismissed questions about whether he held any shares in the fund as a “private matter” but on Monday gave a robust statement in parliament in which he conceded he had been too slow to respond, because he felt the reputation of his “hardworking and wonderful dad” was being traduced.

Corbyn, who had pressured the prime minister to come clean, faced questions after he was initially unable to find his tax form for 2014-15 – and it subsequently emerged that he had submitted it late.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Heather Stewart Political editor, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 12th April 2016 10.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010