Many years ago, my son, then in the sixth form at Katharine Lady Berkeley’s School, Wotton-under-Edge (KLB) was wondering what he might ask local MP, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, when he visited the school. My suggestion was that he should ask why he isn’t allowed to vote, adding that it might be necessary to remind him about the relationship between taxation and representation.
In the debates about lowering the voting age, the discussion tends to focus on the other things that a 16 year old has the right to do, such as give consent to medical treatment or a sexual relationship, get married, join the armed forces, change their name, receive welfare benefits, join a trade union or be a company director. Whilst all these points are valid, the central issue should be that being taxpayers they have the right to representation. According to the Office of National Statistics, the average 15 year old spends around £1,000 a year.
Like the rest of us, teenagers have little idea how much tax they pay on the goods and services they buy. With direct taxes such as Income Tax and Council Tax, there is a clear statement of what has been paid, but this is not true of indirect taxes like VAT and Duty, even in this “Information Age”.
Apparently Government believes that the public are not interested in how much tax we pay. The rules on VAT written 50 years ago state “it would be impracticable for them (retailers) to record the VAT applicable to each separate sale”. This is why there is no obligation to show on receipts what VAT or duty has been paid on items like toiletries, clothing or alcohol, nor what duty has been paid on fuel.
In a letter to Clifton Brown in 2014, I pointed out that the technology has been available for years to show details of taxes and duty paid on sales receipts. I also proposed that a tax summary could be included on monthly credit card statements. Whilst this suggestion was passed to the Treasury, there is no evidence that it was looked at seriously.
Discussions of tax at budget or election time tend to focus on income tax. In the last election it was stated several times (for example MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle on the Emma Barnett Show) that “the top 1% pay 28% of all income tax”. If people could see what they pay in indirect taxation they pay, then it would be much clearer that those on lower incomes contribute a higher percentage of their income in tax than others. A celebrated, if extreme, example of this was provided in the United States when billionaire Warren Buffet revealed that, as a proportion of income, his secretary paid more tax than he did.
The phrase “Taxation without Representation is Tyranny” was first used as a rallying cry of the American Revolution in the 1760’s.
150 years later the same phrase was picked up by women campaigning for the right to vote. The centenary of the first women to get the vote (property owners over 30), was marked by an exhibition in Westminster Hall, and this featured a photograph of suffragettes carrying a banner with those words.
The simple and compelling case made by the revolutionaries and the suffragettes was that taxpayers have a right to elect those who decide how much tax is to be collected and how it should be spent.
Since the 18th century Parliament has been reluctant to accept this and even in the 21st century most members don’t get it. Looking through the list of MPs who voted in December 2015 against allowing those aged 16-17 to take part in the referendum, you find of course that Clifton Brown’s name was there.
Parliament has also rejected motions that nationals of the EU and other countries should be allowed to vote in national elections. Some argue that the British people would find it unacceptable to allow other nationals to vote in ‘our’ elections. My experience is that people were genuinely surprised that some of their friends and neighbours were excluded from voting because of their nationality. Nationality though is no barrier to voting for others such as citizens of Ireland and of some Commonwealth countries.
There is no escape from paying taxes even in prison, and no representation either. David Cameron declared himself “physically ill” at the thought of prisoners being given the vote.
The way representation has been progressed by the Scottish parliament puts Westminster to shame. All 16-17 year olds have been allowed to vote in Scottish elections since 2014, and in 2020 the law in Scotland was changed extending representation to EU and foreign nationals and some prisoners. 16-17 year olds as well as EU and foreign nationals are allowed to vote in Welsh elections.
In the UK there are 6.2 million EU and foreign nationals, 1.5 million 16-17 year olds and 78,000 prisoners. Based on these numbers a reasonable estimate would be that at least 5 million people live and pay taxes in the UK without representation in parliament.
The result of the 2016 Referendum on our membership of the European Union was clearly affected by the exclusion of so many from taking part. Prompted by this my family took to the streets of the capital with a banner based on that used by the suffragettes in 1908. There we met many people who had made their lives here, working in education, health care, engineering and business. They had brought up families, they had paid taxes for years but still they had no vote. This made me feel ashamed of those who represent us. Amongst those I talked to was a member of ‘the3million’, a campaign group of EU citizens. He was upset that it had taken the referendum for people to notice that so many were excluded from voting, and by also the nonsense that meant his wife and children could vote, but he couldn’t!
Representation is a right not a privilege, for all, not just for some. It shouldn’t matter where you were born or even if you have been convicted of breaking the law. If you are contributing to society through taxation you are entitled to representation in how that society is governed.
More people here and in the United States are starting to realise the extent to which our democracies are being eroded and the danger that this poses.
In the United States, 235 years after Taxation was linked to Representation during the fight for independence, 13.6 million lawful permanent residents pay tax but are not allowed to vote, and another 5.2 million are forbidden to vote because of a felony conviction. This year the Republicans in Texas sought to introduce laws for a range of restrictive measures aimed at making it harder for people of colour to vote, and even more shockingly to make it easier for judges in Texas to overturn election results. Other states are implementing measures such as restricting when polling stations are open, reducing the number of voting stations, implementing additional ID checks and restricting postal votes. This, against a background of intimidation that continues to be experienced by some, is clearly aimed at discouraging “the wrong sort of people” from being able to vote.
Shamefully 200 years after Peterloo, nearly 10% of the UK population over 16 are not allowed to vote in National Elections. Not since 1928 when all women over 21 were allowed to vote for the first time has such a large proportion of the population been denied representation in Parliament. In May, following the lead of the Republicans in the US, the Conservatives outlined proposals in the Queen’s speech that would require people to present a form of Photo ID at the polling station in order to vote, a move clearly intended to deter people from voting.
It seems that the country is happy to slip back towards the tyranny that past generations gave their lives to overcome. Teenagers in England are not on the streets demanding the same right as teenagers in Wales and Scotland. Those with other nationalities fear that by actively seeking representation that they might suffer the same fate as the victims of the Windrush scandal and suddenly find themselves being knocked up in the middle of the night to be deported. As for the rest of us, perhaps we don’t yet realise the threat to our democracy, nor how much harder it will be to claw it back when we do.
The Scottish and Welsh Parliaments have led the way, but Westminster has clearly lost touch with what it means to be a democracy. Our representatives there need to be reminded at each and every opportunity, as my son did all those years ago at KLB, that:
Taxation without Representation is Tyranny.