Matthew Parris

Why Gary Barlow should hang on to his OBE

It’s time the game of outrage over honours had some rules. Here are mine

17 May 2014

9:00 AM

17 May 2014

9:00 AM

‘Strip him of his knighthood!’ Or life peerage, or CBE, OBE — or whatever. The cry goes up with a kind of automaticity these days, and with increasing shrillness. As I write, elements in Fleet Street are hyperventilating about Gary Barlow’s OBE. Barlow and two other members of the band Take That are reported to have avoided paying tens of millions of pounds in tax by investing in the Icebreaker Management scheme, deemed by HMRC to be a vehicle for tax avoidance.

Note ‘avoidance’. Steer clear of the word ‘evasion’ because there has been no suggestion of criminality: Mr Barlow and others in his band are threatened only with a hefty bill for unpaid tax.

And a fat lot it will do my own media profile to defend him. Every era has its pet villainies and our own appears to have selected as the moral horrors de nos jours, bankers’ bonuses, tax-dodging and sexual touching. Eighty years ago it would have been homosexuality, treason, too short a skirt, and divorce. Outrage shifts its focus, and the Guardian columnist Zoe Williams was not the first, nor will she be the last, to call for Barlow to do the decent thing and hand back his OBE.

She took care in a radio debate with me this week to allow that she didn’t personally think honours were worth having anyway; but she wants people who do think they’re worth having not to have them if they avoid tax. I do slightly wonder whether Barlow’s most heinous offence in Guardian eyes has actually been to support the Conservative party; and there is indignation among the paper’s readers that David Cameron, while condemning tax avoidance, has not endorsed the call for the singer to renounce the trinket they don’t think it worth accepting in the first place. It’s a bit like atheists demanding that a wayward priest be excommunicated.

The Barlow case does not stand alone. Various peers, variously disgraced, most prominently Jeffrey Archer, have endured calls that the Queen rescind their life peerages. Fred Goodwin and the late Jimmy Savile were stripped of their knighthoods; and I can’t quite remember — and don’t much care — where we are at present with Sir Cyril Smith.


Most of this is sanctimonious nonsense. There’s a danger we may find ourselves on the slippery slope of a highly subjective tariff of offences for which the penalty is being stripped (or called upon to strip oneself) of an honour. But it’s complicated as well as subjective. There are, after all, two variables in play here: the varying gravity of mis-behaviour which may condemn an individual to be de-gonged, and the varying value (on the honours scale) of the gong in question.

At once a question arises: are we looking for proportionality here, or inverse proportionality? Should a small offence be sufficient to deprive an individual of a small honour — a bigger offence being required to divest the individual of a bigger honour? In which case, for example, a history of repeat parking offences might threaten one’s British Empire medal, but rape, murder or (worse) using the not-actually-articulated n-word in a piece of TV footage that was not in fact broadcast, would be required to divest one of a knighthood?

Or is it the other way round, small disgraces being less, not more, acceptable in those with high honours? In that case we might demand higher standards of those who hold the higher honours, and be more forgiving of the misdoings of people who had (for instance) only received MBEs? Thus Members of the Order of the British Empire might be forgiven adulterous behaviour or irregular tax affairs, but life peers would have to walk the plank. Certainly when I was made captain of school, the headmaster told me that more exacting standards would now be required of me than of a mere sub-prefect. A drink-driving offence might destroy a judge’s but not a janitor’s career.

Zoe Williams suggested it was all basically a matter of dishonourable behaviour; but the problem with this is that not all who fall from grace do so in a public way: heaven knows how many other people in the entertainment industry have had to hand back large sums of money to HMRC, and it would seem unfair that Gary Barlow should forgo his gong just because the popular newspapers like to put him on the front page. If we are to do it Zoe’s way but equitably, I’d propose that the honoured be subjected to an annual virtue test, rather like an MOT, in which government inspectors made private enquiries into whether the honoured were behaving in a manner consonant with their status. I don’t, for instance, think a Dame should ever be seen in Lycra. I bet the Queen agrees.

No, joking apart, the more carefully we try to plot the route, the more convinced we must become that this is not a road we should start out upon, unless honours are to become a kind of licence, nullifiable by the newspapers.

There is, in fact, a line that it’s possible to draw and hold. Honours are bestowed for stated reasons: services to charity, for instance (in Barlow’s case); services to banking in Fred Goodwin’s. If after an honour has been granted it is revealed that the recipient got it under false pretences — a scientist who faked his results, for example, a banker who did no service at all to banking, a politician who disgraced politics, or a business-person who turned out to be a crook — then the honour can surely be withdrawn.

And I’d add one rider. Treachery to one’s country and therefore monarch, subsequently proved, must annul any honour at all. Anthony Blunt cannot have expected to keep his knighthood, and did not; and I think Zoe Williams and I could agree on that.

Which brings me to a final thought. Have we ever had a Dame Zoe? The appellation has a certain ring. Hold out for it, Zoe, and don’t accept anything less.

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Show comments
  • Flintshire Ian

    A disproportionate amount income tax is paid by a small percentage of the UK workforce. At the top end of that group of high earners, I would imagine that there is a quite reasonable feeling of paying more than their share, and of taxation beyond any possible benefit, and an equally reasonable desire to hang on to as much of their hard earned cash as legally possible.
    So if an accountant or other advisor markets a tax saving scheme that at face value appears to be legal why not join in? In this case it would seem that the scheme didn’t legitimately deliver the tax relief and Barlow et al will now owe the tax, the interest and the penalties. None of the individuals are tax experts themselves – they pay for and get advice. Until the point arrives at which they refuse to pay HMRC the money that they now appear to owe, there is no cause for all of the sanctimonious whining coming from left of stage.

    • BoiledCabbage

      As the free-food ‘foodbank’ schemes have shown, there is infinite demand for ‘benefits’. Who turns down a freebie? High tax rates today are fuelling avoidance, more accurately deferral. If the Governmnt really wanted to increase revenue they would introduce a flat rate tax, which is proven to be more generative. But mostly our convoluted tax system is a punishment for anyone with the balls and talent to rise above the herd.

      • Paul

        Do not try and compare people who are FORCED to rely on food banks and have to be referred to them, you can’t just decide to go, with the multi-millionaires who chose to avoid their social obligation to pay something back into the UK.

        • LucieCabrol

          What happens if you are one of the 70% of billionaires who made their money outside the UK whom the left seem to want to get rid of…..they do pay quite a lot of tax here.

    • Damon

      “A disproportionate amount of income tax is paid by a small percentage of the UK workforce.”
      A welcome injection of common sense – well said. Needless to say, if the sanctimonious British public who now castigate Barlow were offered a legitimate chance to avoid paying tax, they’d turn it down in the interests of ‘fair play’.
      Yeah, right.

      • Paul

        This “disproportionate amount” still leaves them multi-millionaires. The average worker has to pay a disproportionate amount of tax on their poverty wages as they cannot make ends meet.Do the rich have to go to payday loan companies to pay their bills? I think not. Let’s all stop paying tax then eh?

        • LucieCabrol

          Actually about 50% of the workforce claim more in additional benefits than they pay in tax…a net zero contribution.

          • Paul

            There’s your answer then.If people were paid a decent wage they wouldn’t have to have extra tax payer funded benefits but ,as usual, it’s the greed of landlords etc that make benefits necessary. So in fact the benefits go to said landlords not the workers and the workers still pay disproportionate tax. You advocate one law for the masses but exemption for the rich. There is your illogical greed ridden stand point.

          • LucieCabrol

            In your reverse mirror world , I see your point. Sadly, there is a force called friction, it works with money too and it involves incentive to get out of bed in the morning, incentive to do a good job, incentive to innovate, incentive not to tell your client to fuck right off…none of these factors really affect public sector workers and is the reason that the public sector are so inefficient and lack innovation, or competitiveness.If you just pay people notwithstanding how much they contribute or how much effort they contribute, or how effective they are in their job, you basically run into the sand, lower and lower output with the’friction’ costing the public in terms of extra cost, lack of output, poor service etc….it’s harsh but ultimately we all win…….I’m amazed after 50 years of socialist failure that I am still having to explain this to juniors on the web…are cynical .lying, thieving, deceiving, scum bag, socialist politicians still singing the communist song to get themselves into power….sadly yes….wise up kids.

  • Maria Livings

    It is treachery indeed and in extremely poor taste for very rich person to employ a dodgy tax avoidance scheme, particularly when he aligns himself with charities which are there to supplement the deficits of the state. The public purse would better be able to afford to alleviate child poverty and other suffering if very rich people like Gary Barlow played by the same rules as most taxpayers. Exactly how rich does he think he deserves to be?

    • Terry Field

      Hypocrisy – I would bet money you act to reduce your tax bill when you can. Pure rubbish.

      • Maria Livings

        If I were a multi-millionaire you reckon I’d set up a fake loss-making business to offset my earnings? Actually, no. Maybe YOU would, but perhaps you, like Gary Barlow think you deserve more wealth than you can possibly spend. Perhaps you, like Gary Barlow think that cuts to public spending and belt-tightening are someone else’s problem. How very unpleasant, how greedy.

        • Terry Field

          Your sense of personal moral superiority is irrelevant, and at the same time, little-girl juvenile.
          Your silly comment about excess wealth applies to you also from the eye of people much poorer than yourself, so, similarly, infantile and posturing.
          You raise complete red herrings about public spending, but certainly a massive reduction in the size of the state and the extent of the welfare state is to be greatly encouraged.
          It is you who is very nasty. And you are a prig.

          • Maria Livings

            Blimey! Not sure how any of that makes ME very nasty. Seems to have hit a nerve. Are you a Take That fan?

          • Terry Field

            Easy to answer.
            Your post is full of moral superiority, always a really nasty trait.
            You suggest from your posts that there is a lock-step relationship between the responsibilities of the modern state and the obligations of all individuals in that state. What a horrifying expectation – God knows the place of the individual is of little enough worth in poor England these days, without this sort of guff.
            This is the argument of the Soviet – the idea that the place of and purpose of the individual is to meet the needs of the ‘State’.
            What a nasty, profoundly un-English way of thinking.
            Big state, little individual is what continental powers are very good at.
            The repeated blood-letting, gore and slaughter of the continent comes directly from this statist arrogance.
            This is pernicious, anti-liberal, certainly anti-individual, pro -group, pro authority and pro hierarchy.
            All very alien, European continental (largely french revolutionary) ideas that have dragged state terror and violence in their wake.
            Fashionable post ww2 big state socialism, buttressed with artifice like the ideas of ‘equality’, ‘fairness’, ‘social equlity’ are all relativist ideas which have done enormous damage in the countries where those ideas have held most sway.
            You are caught in a plainly unthinking position , reflecting the now very antique and dysfunctional ideas that Europe and Britain are rapidly leaving behind. France has dumped the socialist objective to grow out of the recession a la Balls; Holland is ripping chunks out of the – massively bloated – French State.
            That will continue in the face of the US and Chinese reality.
            As for the Barlow tax matter, I argued about the Law; I suggested all people take tax into account in formulating their actions – and I would bet large sums of money that you have made economic decisions that help your own personal tax position. Unless you start from the position, every day, that you will seek out the way to pay the most tax you can.
            I care not a fig for your pique, and you hit no nerve – I was enjoying a good glass of claret, and I came upon your priggish little note so decided to put you right.
            As to musical tastes; sorry, my preference is for classical music, jazz and motown.
            Why do I imagine you are a stranger to those genres?

          • Maria Livings

            I’ve no idea. Perhaps because you’re a bit drunk. By the way, whatever you think, Gary Barlow has to pay the tax back, so I guess no-one much agrees with you about it being perfectly OK. Cheers!

          • Terry Field

            Of course he has to pay the correct tax – IT IS THE LAW. Precisely what I said!
            God you are a thick woman. Wooden, dim, obtuse.

          • Maria Livings

            The correct tax including …the amount he sought to avoid paying? I’ve noticed you seem REALLY angry. Pop on a bit of Marvin Gaye. That’ll mellow you out.

          • Damon

            “Pop on a bit of Marvin Gaye.”
            Please don’t. Pop on, rather, a bit of Purcell or Haydn.

          • Maria Livings

            He likes Motown apparently. I’m all for Purcell though.

          • Baron

            Superb, Terry, really superb, you should enjoy a glass of claret more often, then write.

          • Ricky Strong

            Brilliant.

        • BoiledCabbage

          As Kate Moss said, thin feels good, so a bit of belt-tightening will likely improve the heath of the nation.

    • Mc

      You’ve not noticed then that governments always run up massive debts in their efforts to help the poor, because they can never get their hands on enough money. “But ah”, you say, “if everyone pays a fair tax and if the government shifts its spending away from evil and unnecessary things and splurges on the poor, all will be fine”. Dream on.

      If you are so keen on righting wrongs, may I suggest that you donate all your assets and earnings to the government so they can alleviate the poor’s suffering. After all that’s the Christian and socialist thing to do. After all, in comparison to some, you really aren’t currently paying your fair share of tax or doing your best to make the world a better place.

      • Maria Livings

        You’re under the impression that the worldwide recession was brought about by running up massive debts helping the poor rather than a banking crisis? Perhaps YOU would like to live in a country like the DCR which doesn’t collect its taxes? By tax we’re talking about income tax here I presume.

        • Mc

          Your understanding of logic, event sequences, causation and human nature is seriously flawed.

          Your recall of the sequence of events is muddled. The recession wasn’t caused by debts that were run up to save the banks. If there were no bank failures and bailouts, the recession would’ve occurred anyway.

          The DRC is a basket case because it is run by brigands – not because as you claim – it collects no tax. Has it not crossed your mind that however much tax the DRC were to collect, it would remain a cluster cuss? This is because taxes and bribes are seized by officials as their own personal property. A similar example is Nigeria. Despite its government raking in billions in taxes, most of those funds go into officials’ pockets.

          By the way, you haven’t answered my question: are you paying your “fair share” of tax? You seem to occupy a fantasy land where, if everyone just gave the government enough money, the government could resolve every problem by flinging money about.

          • Maria Livings

            Thanks, you made my point for me. Civilised countries collect their taxes. I am under no illusion about the governments power to resolve every problem (particularly not by “flinging money about” – now who’s in a fantasy land?). Extremely rich people don’t need to make themselves any richer by tax-dodging. Its as simple as that. Indeed many very rich people don’t turn themselves inside out trying to avoid paying into the public purse. What makes you think I’m not paying my fair share or indeed doing my best to make the world a better place?

          • Mc

            My point is that you think it is unacceptable for the stinking rich to avoid tax, while you by contrast are in the truly unique position of paying your fair share of tax. Someone less well off than you, in turn, undoubtedly thinks more fortunate people, like you, should pay more tax. The crux is that this bashing of the better off is all about envy and a feeling of disempowerment. But you don’t have the integrity to admit that.

            You also display a complete lack of understanding of nuance or human nature. Just because the DRC is a basket case that collects virtually no tax and spends little on its population, doesn’t mean that by contrast the West’s governments have the effectiveness, interest, or resources to solve their own poverty. And thinking, “If only governments were to make a genuine effort, poverty could be solved” is completely delusional. That is just not how humans or governments work. Governments do not spend money on poverty in order to eradicate it. They blow money on welfare in order to buy votes and fulfill a political ideology.

          • LucieCabrol

            Comprehensive slap down.

  • Terry Field

    This is infantile. The tax advisers identified a possible tax saving strategy, the tax advantages of which overwhelmed all other factors in the investment decision.
    The decision was made, but the tax authorities have succeeded in ruling the scheme out ACCORDING TO EXISTING LAW and, as a result a very high tax charge, that corresponds TO THE LAW will be applied.
    SO
    Why does Hodge, who always seems to be so unpleasantly strident and holier-than-thou on this and similar matters, posture about the guy’s received honour? and then suggest it should be returned, after he got it for great charitable work.
    What has SHE done for people? How much has SHE given??? She ignores the good works of a fine person, but who is she to do so?????
    I imagine many would REALLY like to know her history of giving.
    Why shout from the rooftops when the law is the issue
    Does she wish to deflect from the reality that the law is the issue and avoid the truth that everyone seeks to optimise their tax position.
    I once asked after Hodge’s own tax affairs, and the tax affairs of the company she and her family is said to have an interest in.
    Goodness me, I must have struck something – one of her nasty little legal rottweillers – in public – ‘warned ‘ me off!!!!
    I wonder why??

    It would be nice to have a committee chairman who does not grandstand but who deals with the realities in a wise and mature way.
    More would then be achieved.
    I fear we will have to wait for another office holder for that to happen

  • dave_moon

    I’m not a big fan of the ‘honours system’, given that recipients of such baubles are henceforth expected to become pillars of the Establishment and supposedly set fine examples for the rest of us lesser mortals. However, if the benchmark for getting one is to give of one’s time and effort at personal cost, ‘to the greater good’ then I guess Gary Barlow has earned his. He has committed no crime whatsoever. He is a talented pop star and I doubt he has a head for high finance. So, like most people with a large amount of dosh, he hires an Accountant to advise him. (Why hire a dog and bark yourself?). So he has invested in a tax avoidance scheme – not evasion, (which would be illegal).
    It would seem to me that this hullabaloo has been whipped up as a smokescreen to avoid media attention on the real outrage; HMRC being granted the power to help themselves to people’s bank accounts, thus rendering them guilty until proven innocent!

  • Baron

    No man is required to arrange his affairs so as to pay the largest possible amount of tax.

    What’s wrong with the above then?

    • BoiledCabbage

      nothing – it came from a Law Lord so should have weight in any argument except those of marxist bent.

  • BoiledCabbage

    Barlow needs a better accountant. Some major firms were warning of these potential problems ten years ago.

    • Maria Livings

      Tell that to my friend who had to re-apply for his job in a home for people with mental health difficulties when the contract was put out to tender. He could have his job back, at £2 less per hour. Explain that to his family.

      • Mc

        Not quite sure how your response has an iota of connection to what BoiledCabbage said. Suggest you speak to your psychiatrist about upping your dosage.

      • Maria Livings

        It was a response to: “As Kate Moss said, thin feels good, so a bit of belt-tightening will likely improve the heath of the nation.” Your misunderstanding gave you the chance to make a hilarious Dad-type joke though which I’m sure has made your chums think you’re simply the tops 🙂

        • LucieCabrol

          I think you have some Dad -Daughter issues to clear up…did he not tell you bed time stories?

          • Maria Livings

            He did. He was a wonderful man, a professional story teller, a genuinely kind person and had lots of Dad-type jokes.

          • LucieCabrol

            Why the bitter socialism then love?

  • Andrew Smith

    I really don’t see what the problem is. Tax avoidance is legal. As long as the accountant declares why this money is considered to be deductable, HRMC can look at it and either approve or reject the claim. Which is what happened. It’s not as if though he were caught flying wad loads of cash to Switzerland in a private jet and not declaring it to the tax man.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    OBE, I mean come on. The lowest rank pointless bauble. Anyone awarded an OBE should feel insulted. Give it back… throw it back.

  • maurice12brady

    You write at length about this Barlow business, presumably in the context of an ad hominem! — back in your heterosexual days you also offered your opinions on ‘living on benefits’ — so you’ve always been a member of the rent-a-gob brigade. Just as your analysis then was flawed, so it is today. As for the radio programme you refer to — she really tanned your ass!

  • no name no pack drill

    I think Marie is making some interesting points although she is not doing it very well.

    So some help.

    If Mr Barlow has committed criminal offences with regards to his tax affairs then he should be prosecuted and suffer appropriate punishment.A particular tax avoidance scheme has now been determined to be unlawful.This now creates an obligation to pay more tax. f no criminal offence has been committed then he should not be under any obligation to return his honour.

    That it seems to me is the very clear legal position.

    However the above does not relate to the main point of Marie’s first post namely the identification of inconsistent behaviour namely to on the one hand associate with poverty charities whilst on the other arranging tax affairs fully in accordance with the law but which have the direct consequence of significant reductions in the amount of tax paid to the state.

    It seems to me a moral choice is being made here and whilst that choice is his to make in a free society it is equally appropriate to question the apparent inconsistency.Personally if I chose to arrange my tax affairs in a highly aggressive but completely legal way I might think it sensible to avoid the charge of hypocrisy by avoiding associations with organizations designed to help the poor.

    Should he lose the honour for hypocrisy? That is a more subtle question.On balance I think not.Should he perhaps pay more attention to his tax arrangements and ask some appropriate questions? You bet.

  • Paul

    Oh well that’s alright then,we’ll let Barlow and all the others off shall we?
    What a silly defence of people motivated by pure greed who will still be multi-millionaires if they paid what is due.. The money, a mere £10-20 million avoided by one person, could be better used to help children on a cancer units for example.

  • dalai guevara

    I admire you big cheese chaps – you are so good with words, aren’t you. avoidance/evasion
    minimum/living
    quantitative easing/free money
    socialising/socialist

    What does it all mean? Who does it serve?
    The same grand fromage lot, ever single time.

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