"The innocent have nothing to fear"
This is the much-abused phrase used every time a new erosion of our civil liberties occurs or another draconian law is passed, supposedly to save us from the hundreds of thousands of paedophiles and terrorists lurking on every street corner.
Of course it’s a complete lie. What actually happens is the innocent live in perpetual fear of being wrongly accused, while the not-so-innocent are no more deterred by a stronger punishment than they were by a lesser one.
I was reflecting on this while trying to complete our Self-Assessment Tax Forms which had to be in by the end of January... or else!
There are millions of people up and down the country who fill in their tax returns every year, and not all of them are accountants. So in a bid to save a few more pennies we dispensed with allowing a professional to charge us several hundred quid for filling in a form on our behalf for the 2006/7 accounts.
For someone who is reasonably literate and numerate, it should have been fairly straightforward, and yet it turned into one of the most stressful, anxiety-attack filled processes of the past twelve months.
I have put it off, procrastinated, started, suddenly remembered hundreds of other things I needed to be doing, debated finding an accountant after all, wondered if it was worth skipping the country and contemplated whether it would be less painful to slit my own throat.
Having now completed my tax return, I have to admit it is not such a complicated document – no worse than, say, learning how to play monopoly. Mind you, like monopoly or other family games, if there’s someone in the room who already knows what they’re doing you can be up and running within minutes, but if no one knows and you have to learn solely by reading the instructions, you’ll still be scratching your head and arguing over the rules 3 weeks later. But where this analogy falls down is the consequences of getting it wrong are very different.
And that’s the crux of the matter.
Imagine there was a plank 3 feet wide and 12 feet long lying on the ground; I’m sure you could walk across without falling off with barely a second thought. However, if the plank was traversing a crevasse with a 300-foot drop, you might wonder whether you could do it at all. What would normally be a simple task now becomes one of the most frightening of your life.
Now we know that the government has all sorts of powers of detention and obscure laws to do whatever they want to us. Perhaps we have vague memories of someone once saying that tax evasion is still a hangable offence. Don’t the Inland Revenue have the authority to lock you away in a darkened cell and wire your genitals up to 40,000 volts?
Remember, they didn’t get Al Capone for being a vicious and brutal murdering mobster: they imprisoned him for tax fraud.
The fact that on the forms themselves the only potential punishment mentioned is a £100 fine if you fail to submit your Self-Assessment Tax by January 31st, seems irrelevant. The fear of getting it wrong is overwhelming.
Even without the threat of 40,000 volts to my nether regions, the idea that I might be investigated, have my computer confiscated and end up in court, just because I put a zero in the wrong place gives me the jitters. It doesn’t matter that I wouldn’t knowingly break the law; all it takes is someone’s suspicions for my life to be turned upside down.
Of course the real crooks and fraudsters know the systems and employ the right people to make sure they never get caught; it is your average person in the street who lives in fear.
What about Samina Malik who ended up in prison for writing dodgy poetry and visiting a few unsavoury websites? What about all those prisoners in Guantanamo Bay who after 4 years of detention were released without charge, trial or apology? What about Jean Charles de Menezes who was shot by police on the London Underground because he looked a bit foreign?
It’s always the innocent who live in fear when our civil liberties are eroded.
So if you start reading reports in the newspaper of "The Castle Douglas Two", or worse, we vanish off the face of the earth with all evidence of our existene mysteriously erased, then you’ll know Maggie and I must have slipped up on our disallowable expenses.