FINISHING my tax return in time for the January deadline made me aware of how my outgoings had dropped during the pandemic. True, I had upped my giving through the year, especially to those charities dealing directly with food poverty and homelessness, but, even so. . . Spending less on a holiday, barely eating out, not wandering round clothes shops, not using the train, and hardly ever driving anywhere had made a substantial difference.
I haven’t gone without. I have spent £5 a day on fresh coffee from the café 20 yards away which had the misfortune to open a week before last March’s lockdown. This has seemed like an investment in hope, and in the brave, cheerful, and persistent women who run it, offering coffee, cake, breakfasts, and baguettes, morning and afternoon. I have continued to enjoy gin, wine, and occasional champagne, but, with fewer friends dropping in to share them, they have, I’m glad to say, lasted longer.
My experience of finding myself with more than usual in the bank at this time of year is widely replicated among home-owners above a certain age with a reliable source of income. Between us, we have saved a lot of spare cash.
This should be the target of the Chancellor’s planning as he begins the momentous task of salvaging the economy — because, if I and others like me have done well out of the miseries of the past year, there are countless numbers who have barely scraped by, and who now face insecurities that they never imagined. This is not to mention those who, for years, have been living on the edge, poorly nourished, inadequately housed, and chronically under-equal. One effect of the pandemic has been to cast this long-term inequality in an obscene light.
The tabloids have often tempted us to envy the high life of the extraordinarily rich, but, these days, the indifference of characters who yacht off to the sun while their wealth lurks in tax havens is morally repellent. This could be a moment of metanoia: the birth-pangs of a new kind of philanthropy.
Those of us who do not have glitter but find ourselves with a bit more spare cash than we expected should find ways to spend it well. The Chancellor’s instinct, if Eat Out to Help Out is an indicator, is not to go for massive tax rises, but to incentivise us to spend creatively, to invest in the future, by upping our support for local businesses and the arts, and by responding to the inevitable appeals from churches, schools, and hospitals.
We should be using this opportunity to think smarter and greener, to support our communities, and, where we can, to encourage beauty in the built environment. Tax is a necessary part of rebuilding the economy, but rebuilding our lives requires imagination.