Edinburgh Fringe 2016
A well-researched, engagingly delivered and thoroughly enlightening hour exploring the labyrinthine nature of the UK’s taxation system. And, perhaps surprisingly to some, it proved to be both informative and, at times, very amusing.
You’d have thought that listening to someone talk about tax on a sunny Saturday afternoon could be about as exciting as watching paint dry. But you’d be wrong. A packed Gilded Balloon rocked with laughter as Dominic Frisby, sometime voice-over artist, financial writer, Guardian columnist and author, explored the world of taxation and its pernicious influence on our everyday lives.
A charmingly low-tech set consisting of colourful, hand-drawn pie charts depicting just how much the UK Government rakes in from us each year and then what it does with it was complemented by husky voiced lady providing voice-overs that signposted the various parts of Frisby’s entertaining discourse.
He’s clearly done his research as he reeled off a series of startling, interesting and amusing facts about the UK’s byzantine tax regime, whose ten million word rule book represents more than twelve times Shakespeare’s lifetime output and is, by some distance, the longest in the world, stretching to a staggering 17,000 pages of print. Were you aware, for example, that an average of 52 pence of every £1 earned in the UK ends up in the Treasury coffers? Or that the HMRC is responsible to no-one in Parliament and technically reports to Her Majesty? Or that the average UK citizen works for the equivalent of 22 years for free, just to pay their taxes?
Interesting stuff and all delivered in deadpan tones with exquisite comic timing. And Frisby’s really quick on his feet as well, working well with members of the audience, dealing politely and with good humour to both heckles and the responses to his many enquiries of those listening to his exposé. His knowledge of tax history is encyclopaedic – the UK window tax of the 17th century and its adverse effect on the population’s health and the Roman’s desire to tax urine (which was apparently a valuable agent in clothes laundering and the prevention of tooth decay) just two amusing examples.
With such a complex story to tell, it was a good idea to have a storyboard in front of him although I imagine as Frisby gets further into his three week stint, he’ll refer to it less frequently than here. His denouement (to the strains of Land of Hope and Glory) calling for a radical simplification of the tax system as a means of reducing the disturbing wealth and income inequality that has dogged UK society for decades struck a chord with most people in the room, although his suggestion that simply placing a wealth tax on all UK land would solve the problems is, to me at any rate, an over-simplification of the complex issues that successive Governments have simply refused to tackle. But behind the cheerful humour he landed some penetrating blows, principally against those who are well off enough to find ways of avoiding many of our taxes, although a better balance might have been achieved had he acknowledged that the top 1% of earners in the UK do actually contribute 30% of the tax take. Just how much more, one might wonder, are they expected to cough up?
But this was a well-researched, engagingly delivered and thoroughly enlightening hour of education and entertainment that’s well worth seeking out. After all, if you spend 22 years working to pay all that tax, you might like to know what’s happening to it.