‘Gifts’ to the nation?’

Wow! A Reubens!

I’m not sneering. My childhood was enriched by many happy hours in galleries poring over the detail of paintings and sculptures, ancient and modern with a running commentary from my mother’s fantastic knowledge of art history. I think the national collections housed in our museums, galleries and libraries provide essential nourishment for the nation’s soul.

But here and now, in the middle of ‘austerity’, as we cut benefits to disabled children and argue the toss over teachers’ pensions; as we close hospitals, children’s centres and youth clubs because we say we can’t afford to keep them open, I recognise a tax scam when I see it.

Here’s the story: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/dec/17/acceptance-in-lieu-gifts-tax

If you – person who is rich enough to own a Reubens – want to make a ‘gift’ to the nation, then give the nation the painting! Don’t use it to offset your tax bill!

That one painting apparently settles a £4.4m tax bill. Nice. I could build a primary school for that.

Apparently another ‘highlight this year’ is the Mountbatten archive, which, among 130 metres of other important historical papers contains a handwritten note from Gandhi.

I’m a Southampton girl, so I remember when this archive really was a ‘gift’ to the nation. I remember how hard Southampton University Library battled other academic institutions to be able to look after this collection (Southampton already had the Duke of Wellington’s papers and the Mountbatten estate is local – at Romsey) and make it available to scholars for historical research. As far as I know, Southampton has paid for the collection to be housed and maintained safely. This is not a negligible cost, but worth it to protect such an important resource.

The plan is for the archive to remain at Southampton, so nothing has changed, nothing new has been ‘gifted’ to the UK this year. There is no new, better or different access to the documents. The Mountbatten Estate has simply side-stepped a tax bill.

If you’ve read Dava Sobel’s “Longitude” you’ll know about Nevil Maskelyne, but as the Guardian acknowledges, he’s someone few of us have heard of. Never mind. His archive is going to the Greenwich Observatory. It’s a good thing. But make no mistake, we – the people who do pay our taxes – have effectively bought it. It’s not an early Christmas present. Perhaps we should pat ourselves on the back for our generous non-philistine attitude in the middle of ‘austerity’ – choosing to enhance the collection at the Observatory above funding medical equipment, or teaching resources. I’d like to think we’d all pile down to the Observatory to see this ‘gift’ to us, but I bet more of us spend time this coming year in hospital, or a school, or on a road.

And Farnham in Surrey will get a portrait of “radical journalist and agitator” William Cobbett in payment of £1400 tax. I wonder what his radical self (battling the Corn Laws, fighting to see an end to ‘Rotten Boroughs’, advocating for a living wage for agricultural labourers) would make of that?

I’ve paid more than £1400 tax this year! No one’s written about my ‘gift to the nation’.

“That’s the strength of the scheme” says the senior adviser to the ‘Acceptance in Lieu’ scheme. What? That even tiny, modest artefacts that hardly anyone will ever see can be used by people who personally value them less than cold hard cash (because if they didn’t, they’d keep the painting and pay the tax, wouldn’t they?) to offset their tax bill? And we, the nation, in the middle of ‘austerity’ have to say thank you for the ‘gift’?

Bloody cheek!

Christmas is coming so perhaps it’s worth clarifying the meaning of the word ‘gift’? It’s a thing given willingly, without payment.

If you want to make a gift to the nation, give us the painting, the drawing, the archive.

Meanwhile pay your tax!

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