Grey Areas: A Game of Give and Take

Jun 22, 2012   //   by Keith McDonald   //   Commentary / Editorial  //  Comments Off on Grey Areas: A Game of Give and Take

According to news this week, Brits haven’t lost their generous mentality, despite the unpalatable state of the UK economy.

The ‘Financial Safety Net’ report from insurance specialists Bright Grey often reveals something sociologically insightful. This month, it said that a fair proportion of Brits (39% overall, and 45% of men) would gladly sacrifice £10, to family or to charity, if they felt they could afford it. Only one in five confessed that they would prefer to save the money themselves (which, in itself, is perfectly understandable).

What does this say about the so-called disintegration of “traditional British values” that Eric Pickles, Tory Communities Secretary, has descried?

Perhaps we haven’t lost our inherent sense of generosity after all – ideologically, at least. Or, are we just concerned to keep giving the impression of generosity? Are such lines of questioning trying to make us look frugal, uncaring – feral even – in an age of recession?

We’re not returning to our primal instincts just yet. But there are a few distinctly grey areas.

£10. Give or Take?

£10 is an interesting denomination to have surfaced in this mentality of giving this week, as it has also proved instrumental in the practice of taking.

Sainsbury’s Bank has ended up thousands of pounds down after people rushed to capitalise on an error that allowed them to walk away with ‘free’ money.

Yesterday, the ATM at Sainsbury’s in Tottenham Court Road began paying people more cash than they had demanded. It is thought that an employee mistakenly loaded the £10 tray with £20 notes, meaning that many customers received a bonus on top of the amount they had entered.

As this error was realised, customers queued again to exploit the error. As the word spread, hundreds flocked to use the machine until the problem was eventually reported to a member of the in-store team. The police closed off the ATM until it could be disabled.

On previous occasions, banks have accepted liability for similar errors, so those who profited from the mistake are not likely to be pursued.

1% Tax on “Comedy”

Comedian Jimmy Carr apologised yesterday for what he described as a “terrible error of judgement” in agreeing to tax avoidance measures. Carr avoided tax through the controversial – though currently legal – K2 scheme based in Jersey, which allows individuals to pay tax at about 1%.

Prime Minister David Cameron also got involved, thinking little of naming and shaming.

Some of these schemes we have seen are quite frankly morally wrong. The government is acting by looking at a general anti-avoidance law but we do need to make progress on this.

Band Aid

And if hell hath no fury like a politician scorned, the shadow leader of the Commons, Angela Eagle, turned the spotlight on the newly honoured Gary Barlow [OBE], who is facing questions along with other Take That band members about £26 million that has been invested in a similar avoidance scheme.

A far cry from Westlife singer Shane Filan, then, whose family property firm’s collapse left him to file for bankruptcy on British soil in the midst of the band’s farewell tour. There’s a rather perverse irony that the band’s penultimate single was called ‘Safe’. Not, as it turns out, ‘Safe as Houses’.

Grey Areas

So, we’ve got the almost laughable case where the illegal act is running away with the odd £10 outside of Sainsbury’s that an ATM willingly volunteered, while hiding millions in tax avoidance schemes is often legal.

I’m highlighting inequality here, certainly, but also the difficulties that arise, one way or another, in brandishing judgement.

Writing a few years ago about the expenses scandal and the subsequent outrage, what struck me was how, as a nation, many of us assume a moral code of rectitude that, it could be argued, we have little right to assume.

This is not necessarily because we are not honest people, but because many of us will never know how we would fare with systems so easy to exploit until we face that sort of temptation in the flesh and deal with it.

In 2007, journalists seduced enough subjects into temptation to claim that dishonesty plagues Britain’s streets. Five years later, and the world has become several notches more complicated still. Is an act of theft now an amusing anecdote because there are greater injustices out there? It’s easy to sit back and pass judgement, but human behaviour will always cast a moral spectrum that offers no straightforward response.

So, Britons are cast as generous and spirited in the face of recession and adversity. Publicly, we all want to believe that’s the absolute truth. Privately, we might concede a parallel or alternative truth: that, beneath the surface, few of us look for grey opportunities, but that we’ll gladly take them when they’re offered.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.

Comments are closed.