Dr Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute.
Rejoice! It’s Tax Freedom Day. That’s the point in the year when the average UK citizen has earned enough to pay off all the taxes that the government dumps on them. Finally, from today, May 31, after 150 days of working for the tax collectors, we are free. At last, we are actually working for ourselves.
Take a deep breath, because what follows is shocking. The UK government — a Conservative government — plans to extort £730 billion from us this year. Yes, that’s £730,000,000,000 — an amazing £10,953 each, including every child and infant, or £43,811 for a family of four. And are not just taxes on other people, not just taxes on “the rich” but taxes on all of us.
That £730 billion amounts to two-fifths of every pound we earn, every iota of value that we in the UK produce. And here we are, two-fifths of the way through the year. That is the amount we pay, and the effort we have to put in, to feed the bureaucratic beast.
Hard to believe? Well, think about it. Taxes are everywhere. There’s Income Tax on what we earn. National Insurance Contributions and company taxes on the businesses, large and small, that give us our jobs. Value Added Tax on pretty much everything we buy. Additional duties on the beer, wine and spirits we drink, and on the petrol and diesel we use getting to work. Taxes on the gas and electricity we use to keep warm and cook our food. Taxes on travel when we board an aeroplane and taxes on our homes when we stay put. Stealth taxes on our savings and retirement pensions. Taxes on… well, you name, it there’s almost certainly a tax on it.
The Adam Smith Institute has been calculating Tax Freedom Day in the UK since the early 1990s and has figures on it going back to the 1960s, when Tax Freedom Day fell in mid-April — a full six weeks’ less servitude than the government forces out of us today. Even in 1996 the date was a month earlier, May 1, but since then, under governments of all descriptions — Tory, Labour, Coalition and Tory again — the tax burden has got heavier and heavier, and our freedom has arrived later and later. That is less money going into our pockets to spend on what we want, and more going into projects that politicians and bureaucrats think we should be given.
Even this, though, is only half the story. Not only does the Government grab £2 of every £5 we earn — it borrows even more on top of that. At some point, we and our children and grandchildren will have to pay off that debt. So the real burden of the government bureaucracy on ourselves and our families is even higher than Tax Freedom Day suggests. At this rate, we will be working off the burden of government until November!
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are keen to extol post-Brexit UK a competitive world player. But then we are working longer for Johnson and Sunak than we did even under Theresa May — in fact, even longer than under the Arch-Stealth-Taxer Gordon Brown. It is hard to see how we can compete when so much of our product is consumed by a bloated bureaucracy. In Joe Biden’s America (and he’s no champion of smaller government), workers started earning for themselves on April 16. And there are plenty of other hungry countries who burden their workers far less than we do.
What’s really dispiriting is that Johnson, Sunak & Co show no sign of setting their sights on getting the burden down. No sign of reducing their spending or getting the monthly deficit under control. Quite the opposite: the Government seems to be committing us to one high-spending project after another. No wonder that there is concern among the ranks of battered but loyal Conservatives about what their Party and their government is becoming. People talk of Keir Starmer’s Labour as “Tory Light” but it looks more that Boris is turning into “Starmer Heavy”.
If there is such a thing as government strategy, there is a big disconnect between it and the voting public. Voters have been pummeled by the lockdowns and want to rebuild their incomes and their lives. They are not as in favour of big-spend bureaucratic projects as Downing Street seems to believe. For small businesses in particular, high taxes are a killer — running a business is risky enough, and if you have to face higher and higher taxes, the risk becomes unendurable. But it is small businesses, not big ones, that create jobs — the jobs we need to get ourselves out of the present hole.
Maybe there isn’t a strategy. Maybe it’s just drift. It’s easy to spend other people’s money. But if we are to recover and “build back” (never mind “better”, just “at all”), we need a farsighted tax and spend reduction strategy. We need a plan to reduce the burdens on working people. To allow people to keep more of their own money to spend and invest on their own plans — not Whitehall’s — to grow their own businesses, boost jobs and revive economic life. Is that too much to ask of a Conservative government?