We are living through a period of instability and change in the international tax regime, perhaps unprecedented in its depth and duration. It’s driven by economic and political changes, such as austerity politics, the digitisation of the economy, and the rise of China and other emerging powers. To understand the impact of these pressures on the institutions of tax cooperation, we need to know how the politics at international level works, and we have two complementary lenses to do so. One focuses on conflicts and alliances between states with different preferences: developed versus developing, offshore versus onshore, US versus Europe, and so on. The other takes a sociological approach, studying the transnational policy community that makes international tax rules and its interactions with other actors such as politicians and campaigners. To explain why the OECD, G20, EU or UN have reached a particular conclusion, we probably need to use both of these lenses.
But how do states arrive at their national positions? Those positions set the parameters for subsequent transnational discussions, but they also determine if and how states will implement international agreements. For example, with whom will they negotiate bilateral tax treaties, and on what terms? The same sociological lens is important here, because national tax policy is made by a community of people, many of whom are also involved in tax standard-setting at the OECD and elsewhere. At both national and international levels, international tax has historically been an obscure topic, the preserve of this small community of experts. Every so often – as in recent years – the community faces a conflict with others who aren’t steeped in the principles underlying the tax system, nor its technical details. Such conflicts can play out at the national level, as well as in the transnational sphere.
In an article published over the Christmas break, I explore this using archival documents that show how the UK formed its policy towards bilateral tax treaty negotiations with developing countries. I reach two important conclusions:
- Often it was the UK, rather than its developing country negotiating partner, that initiated and drove forward negotiations. The UK’s aim was to reduce the tax paid by British businesses abroad, making them more competitive in comparison to firms from other countries. So we can’t explain the expansion of the international tax regime into developing countries solely through a focus on developing countries’ actions.
- Tax experts, from the Inland Revenue and the business community, dominated policy formulation. They saw tax treaties as a means to lock developing countries into ‘acceptable’ OECD tax standards, a long game designed to protect British businesses from anything unconventional. Meanwhile, their non-expert counterparts in other government departments and businesses had different priorities derived from a focus on short-term tax gains. They were mostly unable to influence policy, however, indicating that business power over tax policy depends a lot on expertise.
I’ve uploaded all my photographs from the archive files that I cited into a zip file (warning: it’s very large: 660 pages and 273MB). Below is a selection to illustrate the argument.
First, Alan Lord, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue, sets out the tax expert view in 1976:
Here is an extract from the minutes of a typical meeting between the Inland Revenue and tax professionals from British businesses. As can be seen, businesses are being consulted not just about which countries to negotiate with, but also about the sticking points in individual negotiations – in this case Malaysia.
Below is one of my favourite exchanges, from a few months later. In contrast to the open attitude to the CBI tax committee, the same Inland Revenue civil servant (Ann McNicol, now Ann Smallwood) refuses to share even a list of current negotiations with other departments.
Smallwood’s letter provokes a round of very angry memos within those departments, of which this is a good example.
A particular bone of contention between the two groups (Inland Revenue and the CBI tax committee on the one hand, Foreign Office, Departments of Trade and Industry, and their business interlocutors on the other) was the stalemate in negotiations with Brazil. In the paper I show how the tax experts in business and the Inland Revenue did not want to set what they saw as a bad precedent by caving in to Brazilian demands to sign a treaty that contravened OECD standards. They came under strong pressure to sign a treaty “at any price” from business lobbyists who thought UK firms were losing out to German and Japanese competitors that did benefit from treaties with Brazil. The consequence, as Smallwood put it in 1975, was that business “spoke with two voices”.
Ultimately, as the absence of a UK-Brazil treaty today underlines, it was the tax experts who won the day. This illustrates that, while businesses have certainly helped shape the design of the international tax regime, the corporate lobby is far from monolithic in its preferences and its ability to influence. A lobbying position stands more chance of success if it is coherent with the underlying design principles of the international tax regime, and articulated by members of the community of tax professionals at its heart. Whether this conclusion still holds in an era of politicisation and rapid change perhaps merits some further investigation…