You may have heard that on Monday in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a statement about his personal tax affairs that have come under significant scrutiny over the past week and a half, in the wake of the Panama Papers.
The story behind it is that before becoming PM in 2010, Cameron owned shares in his father's offshore firm. He sold these shares in January of that year, to make a moderate £17k, on which he paid income tax when he declared it in his return to HMRC. All of this was perfectly above board and legal, and cannot be defined as tax evasion.
When the Panama Papers were released, they included details of Ian Cameron's business (Blairmore Holdings) therefore, in the absence of the information above, questions were naturally asked about whether David had or would benefit from the offshore firm's existence.
Over the course of 4 days, the PM/Downing Street issued 5 statements:
- On the Monday Downing Street said "This is a private matter".
- In an interview on the Tuesday, Cameron said "I have no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds, nothing like that. And, so that, I think, is a very clear description".
- Later that same day, Downing Street released a further statement, saying "To be clear, the prime minister, his wife and their children do not benefit from any offshore funds. The prime minister owns no shares. As has been previously reported, Mrs Cameron owns a small number of shares connected to her father's land, which she declares on her tax return".
- On the Wednesday, Downing Street felt it further necessary to clarify the position, stating "There are no offshore funds/trusts which the prime minister, Mrs Cameron or their children will benefit from in future".
- On the Thursday, in an interview, Cameron told ITV news "We owned 5,000 units in Blairmore Investment Trust, which we sold in January 2010".
As acknowledged above, this ownership of shares was perfectly above board and legal. Indeed, on Saturday 9th April, Cameron took the unprecedented step of releasing details of his tax affairs.
The thing that concerns me most of all is this: Cameron clearly did not want to reveal his ownership of those shares, otherwise he would have done so earlier in the week. Instead over a number of days, Downing Street was forced to release statements, each one differing in meaning. The outcome was that after extensive political, public and media pressure, Cameron was forced to reveal it. The question that I (and I suspect plenty of others) ask myself now is this: what else could he be hiding that he doesn't want us to know?
So, following his statement in the Commons on Monday, the floor was opened up to questions and comments from MPs. This is where the Beast of Bolsover (Dennis Skinner MP) comes into it.
Below is a video of exactly what happened…
Yesterday, on Twitter, I posted the following:
— Alex Hovden (@WheelsOnFire92) April 12, 2016
This was simultaneously posted to my personal Facebook profile, and has generated some discussion. On the one hand, one of my friends believes that the word 'dodgy' was inappropriate and an ad hominem attack which has no place in debating, and therefore my declaration of respect and praise for him is silly and fundamentally wrong. On the other hand, I take the viewpoint that very occasionally in debate and discussion it may be necessary to make a strongly worded remark to get your point across, which is exactly what I deem 'dodgy Dave' to be an example of. I don't believe he should have been asked to withdraw the word, but I fully accept that the Speaker had to exert his authority when Skinner refused, by instructing him to leave.
Another point that was raised during the discussion was the behaviour of MPs generally during sittings of the Commons. We were both in agreement that the heckling and jeering was childish and does significant damage to the reputation of politics in the UK. The contentious point appeared to be about whether members making remarks about other members during speeches or questions, as was the situation with Skinner, was acceptable. His argument was centred on the notion that you should 'attack the idea and not the person' as one of the fundamental rules of debating, whereas my argument was that as long as the members are not inciting hatred or violence then the principle of freedom of speech must kick in. My argument was also built on the premise that sometimes hard truths and unfriendly opinions need to be aired and recorded, especially in Parliament in front of all political leaders.
I want to turn now to explain why I respect Skinner. He has been the MP for Bolsover constituency for 46 years, which means that he has won some twelve general elections on the trot, and seen eight Prime Ministers come and go. He has a reputation for standing up for what he believes in, and strong passionate speeches in Parliament. He is clearly not afraid to challenge authority and speak his mind, regularly doing so with wit and class. One of my favourite quotes of his was where he said "Half the front benchers opposite are crooks", which he was asked to withdraw and so responded with "OK, half the front benchers opposite are not crooks".
It is my opinion that we need more people who are not afraid to stand up to political leaders on all sides of the House and who regularly challenge the status quo. Skinner to me is the epitome of someone who refuses to follow the crowd Yes, his methods may be unorthodox and some might consider them inappropriate, but to me they demonstrate what a really unique character he is, and one that will be remembered for a very long time after he retires from Parliament.