“If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street. If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat. If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat. If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.” Thus warbled four rockstars from Merseyside.
As rebellious as it was melodic, Taxman would become the first track on the Beatles’ album Revolver, with the band’s metaphorical firearm aimed squarely at the overzealous policies of Harold Wilson’s 1966 government.
But the Beatles were hardly the first people to have tax collectors in their cultural crosshairs.
In the Christian New Testament, a taxman named Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is passing through the city of Jericho, and decides to join the adoring crowd. Being a short man, he climbs a sycamore tree to get in on the action.
Jesus is so impressed by this demonstration of devotion that he chooses the tax collector’s house as the place he will stay that night — to the dismay of the crowd. A sleepover at a sinner’s house! So reviled were tax collectors that we are still talking about Zacchaeus millennia later.
But is this characterisation of the taxman — or woman — actually fair? Well, ’tis the season to find out.
The online deadline for self-assessment (the taxation process for the self-employed and business owners) is 11.59 tonight. In the run-up to this, more than 10m British citizens will have their annual engagement with the taxman. These experiences will either contribute to — or diminish — the mythology surrounding Zacchaeus.
For the most part, they will in fact be pleasantly surprised.
Over the last few decades, taxation has transformed to become more transparent, easier, and generally friendlier. HM Revenue and Customs — the government department responsible — has played a big role in this reputational shift, partly through clever marketing.
In the noughties, it launched its catchy slogan “tax doesn’t have to be taxing”, which dominated the airwaves and public consciousness. Suddenly, HMRC moved from scaremongering to reassurance, and the results clearly resonated.
Then in 2018, with the help of some photogenic ducks, it rolled out a self-assessment visual advertising campaign based around phrases like “Whatever you do, don’t duck it” and, “Don’t let your tax return peck away at you”.
Though these campaigns score highly in cringe factor, there is no denying their memorability and approachability. They convey that the government is on your side and wants you to file on time. HMRC is not crossing its fingers for you to slip up just so punitive fines can be issued.
The government’s change in approach is reflected in the statistics, too. In January 2019, only seven per cent of filings missed the 31 January deadline. Tax collectors may never be popular, but they are no longer the bad guys of history.
The underlying reason that HMRC has been able to change its messaging, and become remarkably friendlier, is advancements in technology. Electronic tax returns came into existence in 1997 and since then the digital process exploded in popularity.
In 2019, 93.5 per cent of all returns were filed online. There are now a host of tech platforms which are designed to take the pain out of book-keeping and taxation.
As a creator of one of these tools myself, I see first-hand the look of surprise when it dawns on people how simple financial organisation can be. It is genuinely easy to do your tax returns, and it will only get easier.
HMRC understands this, therefore it no longer needs to play the scaremongering card.
Instead, its job is to educate the population on quite how easy financial admin can be. Because tech certainly doesn’t have to be taxing.