Democracy Café – February

Two very interesting debates at this month’s Democracy Café meeting held via Zoom

Two topics won through this month: one on privacy and the other on whether we should have a land tax.  At first sight unrelated but, read on …

Privacy and the news this week of a legal victory by Megan Markle against the Mail on Sunday who had published letters she wrote to her father.  It raised the question of how much should be in the public domain for us all to see.  There was a lot of interest by the public of things to do with the Royals (as in the Royal family not the TV family of the same name!).  More openness in politics however is a feature of Open Democracy.

There was general agreement that it depended on what the content was.  Letters between individuals should remain private but if the content was about matters of public concern, then there might be a case for publication. The fundamental distinction was between ‘in the public interest’ and ‘of interest to the public’.  It was noted that we have some of the most restrictive set of rules preventing publication in comparison to other democracies.  Things like Cabinet minutes were kept secret for 30 years when many of the participants would be dead and the matters discussed long since over with.  It was pointed out that SAGE minutes are now published without, it seems, the ceiling falling in.

Would we risk being overloaded someone asked?  If all sorts of government papers were published, could we be drowned by it all?  Another point: would publication inhibit civil servants, experts and others giving frank advice to ministers?  The problem – which seems to be increasing – is that many decisions are being made behind closed doors without either the public or parliament knowing what is going on or being able to discuss them.  Was the Windrush decision for example ever discussed in Cabinet?  Who said what in the lead up to the Iraq war?  This increasing secrecy has almost certainly led to the rise of the ‘chumocracy’ with hundreds of millions of pounds in contracts being issued to friends, cronies and party supporters without proper oversight.  Good old fashioned corruption in other words.  The opposite of public interest is private interest it was noted.

A fundamental assumption was that decisions were made competently after a careful assembly and consideration of the facts and opinions sought from  those who know.  The reality is that decision making is chaotic with the actual decisions made in private rooms and the Cabinet simply assembled to rubber stamp what has already been decided elsewhere.  Decisions were made on the basis of political expediency.  If there was more openness, the likelihood was that actual decisions would shift elsewhere.  A film of the G7 summit was mentioned, attended by President Trump, showing him casually deciding whether to pull out of NATO and subsequently pulling out of the Paris climate accord.

The whole concept of privacy has been questioned recently in a book Life after Privacy.  We have been willing to give away our privacy for the benefits of shopping on line.  Sites like Amazon and Google collect huge quantities of data about us which we seem willing to give. Does it matter? 

In the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt discusses loneliness and distinguishes it from isolation.  We chose our privacy she claims. 

The second half moved onto a discussion of land tax a topic we have discussed before.  The topic arose from a recently published book, The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes.  There was firstly, an economic argument since a major slice of the price of a house is the land it sits on.  The supply of land and hence its price was a key factor in the economy.  Yet land itself is largely untaxed.  Thomas Picketty argues in his book Capital in the 21st Century, that there should be a shift away from taxing earnings to taxing wealth which was in many respects unproductive.  It would also enable the elimination of other taxes such as the community charge.  Developers for example, had collectively around 5 years supply of land with planning permission, and they were able to build as an when it was profitable for them, not when houses were needed.  Taxing the land would act as an incentive to build. 

However, could such a tax act as a disincentive to develop?  It was indeed one of the problems of the Betterment Levy – one of the attempts to tax land and development – that landowners simply declined to sell and waited for the tax to be abandoned which ultimately it was.  This led onto the question of taxing land which was for the benefit of the community or was not earning income, for example, wildlife habitats.  This need not be a problem since there was already a system of grants to encourage this activity and such uses could be zero rated.  The tax could also be used to incentivise the use of land for solar energy or wind farms for example.  

Letchworth Garden City was mentioned which is managed by the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation the income from which is invested in the community.  This could readily serve as a model elsewhere. 

It was noted that all land is owned by the Crown which introduced the notion of stewardship.  The second point was that we have got used to the pattern of land ownership a system introduced by the Normans.  William the Conqueror simply handed out parcels of land to his barons and dispossessed the English.  This pattern of ‘land grabs’ has been the case through history and fuelled the Empire.  In this connection, the lack of footpaths in Ireland was noted and almost certainly this arose because the country was once part of the Empire and there would have been little interest in the needs of Irish peasants.   One participant found the signs put up by local landowners – saying PRIVATE, KEEP OUT – to be needlessly aggressive.  Should we rethink the whole basis of the ownership of land?  We have somehow accepted the current pattern established by the Normans and have never really challenged it.  

How will it benefit society?  A difficult question but at least it will make things a little fairer with wealth paying its share.  Tax based on land would be very easy to collect since it cannot be concealed that easily (although perhaps it should be noted that what Britain’s largest landowner – the Duke of Buccleuch – owns is unknown even to some of his tenants.)  One of the most efficient taxes however is Stamp Duty: easy to collect and hard to avoid.  

There was a brief discussion about criminal trespass which was an act introduced to protect ancient monuments.  This was about the time of the infamous ‘Beanfield Massacre‘ incident near Stonehenge in 1985.   

Will it change?  The idea of a land tax was suggested in the Labour Party manifesto in 2019 and was successfully characterised as a garden tax by the Conservatives.  Politically, it seems a toxic idea that will need a lot of work to sell and to explain the benefits of to the voters.  Another point is it was revealed this week that the Queen sees all bills for vetting before they come to Parliament and has amended or squashed a number of them before they have seen the light of day.  A land tax will hit her estates and those of other royalty with higher taxes so such a proposal would find difficulty getting debated.  Then of course there is the House of Lords …  Hence we came full circle with privacy and secrecy linked to the taxing of land.

An excellent debate and our next is in March.


Unconnected with the discussion it was noted that there is an attempt to recruit more independents onto the council in the forthcoming elections.  How Salisbury is managed (or is it mismanaged?) politically has been the subject of several of our debates in the Café over the years and if there were more independents on the council perhaps this would help.   

Peter Curbishley