A bricked up window following a historic English window tax during the 18th and 19th centuries. Photo by Getty/mtreasure

PAYE makes the world go round

Jamie Blackett reviews Daylight Robbery by Dominic Frisby

Artillery Row Books

It says a lot for the fragmented nature of our media that most people have never heard of Dominic Frisby. I came across him on Twitter a few months ago when someone retweeted a YouTube clip of his song Seventeen Million Fuck Offs, a work of iconoclastic brilliance (“Jeremy Corbyn — Ah Bless”) that seemed to me to capture the spirit of the Brexit age (and before you start, I was a Remainer).

Daylight Robbery: How Tax Shaped Our Past and Will Shape Our Future by Dominic Frisby Penguin, £20

Further research revealed him to be making a good living as the only right-wing stand-up comedian on the circuit, (“Maybe Donald Trump is not all bad” and other ballads), which made me think he must be highly competent, though I suspect you are unlikely to see him on the BBC. Then I saw him being interviewed by James Delingpole in a “Delingpod” (highly recommended) and twigged he is also a very clever economist who writes for MoneyWeek. I’m parading my backwoods ignorance to metropolitans here, but the basic point is sound: here is a prodigious talent in our midst that most people don’t know about.

And so to the book; after that build-up it would be disappointing if it was an anti-climax but it is anything but. The man clearly has an eye for the zeitgeist. Just as Seventeen Million (which disappointingly didn’t quite make it to Number One on Brexit Day) made us think about the tin ear of the political elite, Daylight Robbery focuses on taxes just as the government considers tinkering with taxation to try to decarbonise the economy, possibly unleashing a revolt against the establishment that might make Brexit look like a playground brawl. The clue is in the title: daylight robbery was how opposition politicians described the window tax. This misguided fiscal policy is now remembered as an architectural curiosity — bricked-up windows in Georgian rectories — but at the time its unforeseen consequences caused terrible living conditions in badly-lit and ventilated housing.

Frisby’s sardonic wit is deployed to entertaining effect as he trots us through his thesis that politicians introduce taxes for wars and other exigencies then hang on to them long after the original need has passed.

It comes as no surprise to find that the book grew out of a comedy act at the Edinburgh Fringe. Frisby makes us reassess historical events through the prism of taxation. There is not much that hasn’t been affected by fiscal policy – the birth of Christ for example – and historical events such as the Black Death have had a dramatic effect on taxes for centuries afterwards. Let’s hope our grandchildren are not still paying a coronavirus levy at the end of the century.

The analysis of how the secession of the free-trading southern states from a protectionist trading bloc in the north led to the American Civil War provides an interesting parallel to Brexit. The rise of the Big State and punitive rates of income tax are traced from the election in 1871 when Gladstone and Disraeli both tried to abolish it through until the present sorry state of affairs where we are still labouring pretty much under Gordon Brown’s settlement.

But beneath the tax trivia and alternative historical theories there is a serious message that is signposted by the subtitle: How tax shaped our past and will change our future. Frisby is especially strong on the threats to the nation state caused by globalisation and the rise of trends that will potentially damage the chancellor’s tax take: non-doms, digital nomads, corporations that either deliberately never make a profit or manage their affairs in such a way that the profit just happens to be made where tax rates are lowest, and alternative currencies like bitcoin (on which he has written a book).

It is a wretched irony that in Scotland, the nation that produced two of the world’s greatest economists, Adam Smith and John Cowperthwaite, we have higher rates of income tax than the rest of the UK for middle-income earners — and consequently shortages of doctors and other professionals — thanks to a now ex-finance minister who had never heard of a Laffer Curve. I hope someone encourages Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers to read this book, although I fear it may fall on deaf ears. 

The book interests, enrages and worries us about what for most of us is the biggest overhead in our lives — the cost of government — then makes us think about whether there just might be another way. I am mentally assembling a “fantasy football” list of original thinkers to join Dominic Cummings’s team of weirdos and misfits to shake up Whitehall. Please let’s let Dominic Frisby loose on the Treasury. If nothing else, it would give him rich material for another song.

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