Given a Captive Audience…

This evening I threw a party for (the overlapping categories of) friends, judges, barristers and journalists to celebrate my elevation to Silk. I had a few words to say. I wrote them sober but uttered them otherwise. They approximated the following.

I became a tenant at 11 New Square tax chambers in 1998. Back then being a tax lawyer was about as interesting as being an actuary. I was wont to quip that I kept a list of hosts of dinner parties to which I had not been invited; when those hosts became wealthy I would refuse to go.

Particularly influential then was Peter Trevett QC. “Young man,” he told me, “there’s money to be made in delivering to people the advice they want to hear. That’s not what we do here.” That’s a homily that still resonates with me now, as those of you who suffer my cramped prose on waitingfortax will know.

As my practice grew, I benefited hugely from working with Jonathan Peacock QC. His coolness under fire frustrated the attempts of judges and opponents alike to get to the result they just knew was right. When I was younger I would often ask myself, ‘what would Jonathan Peacock do?’ An advantage of getting older is that it liberated me to act otherwise. Being yourself might make you more, or it might make you less, successful as a professional. But there’s no skin more comfortable than your own. That’s the thought I try now to carry forward.

Professional practice has changed hugely too. For us benighted tax practitioners the credit crunch came like a huge boot, kicking away the rock beneath which we had gone about our business. We scurried for shade, we and our clients. I don’t think we’ve yet managed to adapt to the sunlit world in which we now find ourselves.

Here’s a short prescription. Rather than bemoaning the limited understanding of public and media, we should work to improve it. I speak to a lot of journalists – several a day – and I’ve only ever spoken to one who wasn’t interested in the truth.

But we need to be transparent about the premise from which we proceed. When we act in a professional capacity it’s right that we talk our own book. Everyone understands that we sometimes speak as lobbyists. But it’s important to signal when we do. Otherwise we become part of the problem. If we merely stand on the sidelines and criticise, we don’t merely ignore Gandhi’s injunction to ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ We thwart it.

Of course, now is a not a moment when sensible discussions about tax – or much else – can happen. I’m oft reminded of Walsh’s devastating line to Jack Nicholson: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” But it’s the gap left by our absence from the debate that politicians are compelled to occupy with measures like the Google Tax. It is the work of our own hands we curse. And from which in the final analysis we – and our clients – suffer.

I’m not often afforded a captive audience. But you’re all old enough to know there’s no such thing as a free glass of burgundy. So one final thought. It’s not merely that we should measure success in terms of happiness. But also from happiness that we achieve success. That’s a rather barristerial way of saying ‘thank you’ to my wife, Claire, to whom I owe everything.

Final thanks to, in particular, Will and Vince who have made me feel very welcome at Devereux. And to Hui Ling McCarthy who is always around to carry me across troubled professional waters.

6 thoughts on “Given a Captive Audience…

  1. Congrats Jolyon! Sorry not to be there…

  2. Sorry that I couldn’t make it yesterday – babysitting issues. I was disappointed not to come, and to hear you say these words otherwise than sober! I hope a great time was had by all, and to catch up again soon.

  3. Congratulations Jolyon.

  4. I enjoyed your ‘speech’ Jolyon – you seem a man of principles and I hope that you may always feel able to stick to them in the murky world that you have chosen to practice in. May you shine light on that world and achieve clarity wherever you go in it.


  5. Thank you Mark. I’ve got a better chance of succeeding if I’m reminded of the need to be sentient from time to time… 🙂

  6. Pingback: Tax Justice Research Bulletin 1(3) » Uncounted: Alex Cobham

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