Admission; I read the Daily Telegraph. To say that it is ‘a bit right wing’ is to admit that the North Pole can be a little cold, but in my defence I like it for a number of apolitical reasons. Among these are excellent sports journalism and the fact that the obituary section reveals wonderful stories about people whose lives, achievements, fame or infamy would otherwise be forgotten. Last week it ran an expansive obituary on ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, one of London’s East End gangsters from the 1960s and a man whose life reads like an exaggerated script for a Guy Ritchie movie. He was reputed to have been involved in up to 40 murders, but never convicted of one.
Back in the sports section I read an assassination of another kind. Namely a piece by its accomplished Chief Sports Feature Writer Oliver Brown taking Lewis Hamilton to task over his Monaco residency, tax status and lack of financial contribution to the UK Exchequer.
‘The hypocrisy of Hamilton draping himself in the flag, while escaping his dues to the Exchequer by denying British residence, can stick in the craw.’ Strong words. To be fair on Brown, he said this was the tenor of comments from readers following an article at the beginning of the week in which he had lauded Hamilton’s achievements on the race track.
The central argument of The Telegraph column was therefore to say that the newly crowned double World Champion represents a problem for British sports fans because he doesn’t pay tax at home. I am not sure the capacity crowd at Silverstone, or the peak audience of 7.9 million television viewers in the UK who witnessed his title-winning race in Abu Dhabi, would agree.
Sadly this was not the first time following Hamilton’s title success that he has been pilloried by the British media over his tax status. Max Hastings, eminent journalist, broadcaster and military historian, wrote an article in the Daily Mail two days previously headlined ‘Don’t wrap yourself in the flag if you won’t pay UK tax’. Hastings’ specific point was that Hamilton is an unworthy recipient of honours such as the MBE already bestowed upon him, or a Knighthood should his multiple titles continue to accrue.
Wrote Hastings; “…has Britain fallen so low, are the British people so desperate to clutch out at fame and glory, that we are willing to kid ourselves that somebody belongs to these shores who only turns up here for the occasional race…’ Yes, he actually wrote that. Apparently when you move abroad and pay tax according to your residency, you should relinquish the right to be rewarded by your country for anything you might achieve.
The more I read and re-read these articles, the more I felt there was something else at play here. Either a personal dislike of Hamilton, for reasons we can only guess at, or simply the opportunity to take an alternate view of his achievements and importance ‘at home’ in a week when the rest of the UK media was benefitting from a Mercedes-led PR blitz.
To read these articles, and see those agreeing with them on social media, made me wonder whether Jackie Stewart (Switzerland), Nigel Mansell (Isle of Man), Damon Hill (Dublin) or Jenson Button (Channel Islands & Monaco) ever faced a similar barrage of negativity over their choice of residency. Freedom is a rather important aspect of UK citizenship, and the last time I looked this includes the right to choose where you live, work and pay tax. As long as you adhere to internationally recognised tax agreements and ensure that income is declared correctly in the relevant jurisdictions, there is no case to answer.
The Daily Telegraph’s owners, the Barclay brothers, know a great deal about these kinds of transactions too. They live on their privately owned island of Brecqou in the Channel Islands with another home reported by The Guardian newspaper to be in, ahem, Monaco.
Hamilton’s biggest mistake, it seems, was to excuse his initial move from the UK to Switzerland on the grounds of avoiding excessive public and media attention. Better if he had simply said it was a good idea for tax reasons in order to save money for life after F1. Swiss-based former Champions including France’s Alain Prost and Germany’s Michael Schumacher followed the same course. Meanwhile, in relation to living in Monaco and the Channel Islands Sir Frederick Barclay was reported by The Times newspaper in 2012 as saying that he and brother David have lived abroad for 23 years for ‘health’ reasons. That is health with an ‘h’, not a ‘w’.
But back to F1, because ‘life after F1’ is one of the reasons these high earners have the right to move wherever they want in order to maximise the net income from their career. Firstly because they never know how long their career will last, and secondly because there is always a chance, inherent in this sport at least, that they may be killed or seriously injured. In the latter case a life time of disability or incapacity may be the price paid for reaching the pinnacle of this sport. Ask Phillipe Streiff, a quadriplegic since 1989, or Martin Donnelly, afflicted by life-changing injuries since his career-ending accident in 1990. More poignantly this tragic aspect of life as an F1 driver is something the families of both Michael Schumacher and Jules Bianchi will be painfully aware of at the present time. Specialist, round-the-clock care requires vast sums of money, and would anyone begrudge them a tax free war-chest to cover the medical fees?
Furthermore, to take the point about Hamilton’s residency being somehow disloyal, this seems to me an extraordinarily narrow view. His achievements in winning two Formula One World Championship titles only adds to Britain’s reputation as being at the epicentre of Grand Prix motor racing. The UK’s ascendency in Formula One is very clear; the majority of the teams are based here, Formula One is run from London by Bernie Ecclestone, and the fact that 15 World titles have been won by British drivers since 1950 strengthens its foundations. The result is over 5000 full time jobs in Formula One and an estimated 15,000 jobs in the UK supply chain; employers and employees who add a great deal of income to the Exchequer through direct and indirect taxation.
That Mercedes Benz, an iconic German manufacturer, should employ over 1200 staff at its two UK F1 facilities in Brackley and Northampton, is a huge achievement for Britain. Lewis Hamilton’s success in winning Mercedes’ first World Championship since 1955 is going to help sustain that investment in the UK, and yet this appears to have been forgotten in the rush to criticise his choice of where to wake up each morning. He deserves better from the media, and the public who have joined the fray over his tax status. Whether on the political Right or Left, they ought to take in a more complete picture of what Hamilton’s achievement has done for a country whose passport – and flag – he carries with pride.