Arriving at a hotel in the heart of Dickens country late last Monday night, I was asked by the receptionist if my day had been a pleasant one. I replied that, having woken in one country, worked a full day in another and being now about to go to sleep in yet another, I did not feel qualified to answer the question (or, for that matter, any question).
We live in a mad, frenetic world.
Not many hours later, beating the dawn to its daily task of rousing the city from its slumber, I decided to fulfill a life-long ambition (or more precisely an ambition since the first year of grammar school) to greet the sunrise from the centre of Westminster Bridge – mimicking what William Wordsworth experienced when he stood in the same spot “Upon Westminster Bridge” on September 3, 1802. Well, all I can say is that either Mr Wordsworth was high on some interesting substance when he wrote “Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still!” or London has changed a bit in the last two hundred-odd years. At 6am The city was alive with motorists, cyclists, joggers, river boats and pedestrians. Even the Underground was working.
Later in the day, sitting in the jump-seat of a Black Cab (which was not black), bombing up the Mall from Buckingham Palace to Admiralty Arch, I was alerted to the sight of a horse-drawn carriage crawling in the opposite direction and creating an almighty traffic jam in its wake. It was being driven by two men in full 18th century livery carrying, whom I assumed to be, the rotund Ambassador of an African nation on his way to present his credentials (and from the way he was dressed – possibly his bed sheets) to HMQ.
Later still, my colleagues and I pulled up in another Black Cab at the Cavalry and Guards Club in Piccadilly, where we were warmly welcomed by our host, a club member, who had kindly invited us to lunch. The whole marvellous experience was quintessentially British and utterly timeless. We had been advised in the invitation that “Gentlemen are required to wear a tailored jacket and tie” (my wife had queried whether, while my suit might be acceptable for an officiating undertaker it would not meet the enhanced standards of a gentlemen’s club). Taking my cue from the other diners in the room, the jacket did not come off throughout lunch despite the unseasonably hot weather and the elbows did not, even once, as much as graze the table.
My entire day was a tug-o-war between London Present and London Past. What kept coming to mind was something I had mentioned that morning in a short breakfast lecture – “Management and Control”. Over a century after the phrase was coined by a British Judge, while it remains one of the mainstays of the international taxation system, it is also one of the most confusing.
Time for a bit of mischievous conjecture.
Tuesday July 31, 1906 – Lord Loreburn is sitting in his usual armchair at the National Liberal Club with a copy of the Times in his lap. He is approached by a young, balding MP, cigar in hand, who – after the usual niceties – he politely invites to take the seat next to him.
MP: Lord Chancellor, congratulations on your judgement in the De Beers diamonds case yesterday. I understand it created quite a stir among the legal fraternity.
LL: Y’know, old boy, it was time the South Africans remembered who’s in charge. Those bounders were claiming that, just because the company was registered down in Boer Country – I know how much you love that part of the world – it was not British. Balderdash, I said in no uncertain terms. Told ’em that you had to try and imagine that a company was like an individual that cannot eat or sleep but can keep house. I thought that was quite clever. Anyway, I rounded it off with : ‘A company resides … where its real business is carried on … and the real business is carried on where the central management and control actually abides’. I actually don’t have the faintest idea what I meant but, to cut to the chase, because all the chaps running the company are in London, it can jolly well pay its tax here as a British resident. Otherwise, the revenue will go to helping those damned Boers who don’t deserve a bean. And as for…
MP: If I could interrupt, Lord Chancellor. Don’t you think this idea about tax residence being where the “Central Management and Control” resides could lead to all sorts of uncertainty in the future? Allow me to challenge you with something fanciful I saw in The Times the other day. You will have heard of those two American bicycle builders – the Wrights, I think they are called – and their early success. Well they patented an improvement to Flying Machines a few weeks ago which they claim enables them to control flight so that they will be able to fly to specific destinations rather than their current circus act of reaching somewhere in the next field. What if one day, a company director were able to climb aboard one of those flimsy contraptions with his top hat tied firmly to his head and, holding tight to his seat, fly to another country in a day or two and make decisions there. Where would the Central Management and Control be then?
LL: Oh, you are a card! Could you really imagine a British gentleman submitting himself to one of those flying machines? Quite preposterous! Next you are going to tell me that he would be served fine whisky and a fresh copy of The Times! Ha Ha. Listen, old chap, I was talking to Ismay of the White Star Line the other day. He is thinking of commissioning three (!) new ocean-going liners to compete with Cunard. By 1912 he expects to have the biggest passenger ship in the world sailing between Southampton and New York – with swimming pools and billiard tables – and totally unsinkable. That is the future for gentlemen. Safe, luxurious travel. Not some flimsy piece of wood with a bit of canvas stretched over it, all held together by string.
MP: You are probably right. They will be much more use for throwing bombs from when there is another war. Well, I must be on my way, Lord Chancellor. It has, as ever, been a pleasure talking to you.
MP walking across the room (to himself): Good Lord! That fellow is stuck in the 19th Century.
LL (to himself): Precocious young whippersnapper. Lacks his father’s self-discipline. Must be the mother’s American influence. I don’t know what Campbell-Bannerman saw in him to make him Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. Gentlemen in flying machines, indeed. And what was that idea of bowling bombs from them at the enemy? Heaven help the country if he ever achieves a position of real power. Somehow, with ideas like that, I don’t think we will be hearing too much more of Mr Winston Churchill.