Blogger profile: Waiting for Godot

Counsel speaks to Jolyon Maugham QC, the tax law blogger Waiting for Godot

Where did the inspiration come from to write the blog?

I began to write the blog three years ago, when the public started to become interested in tax avoidance. My own practice was in that field and I wanted to see an improvement in the quality of public thinking.

It’s fair to say that my ambitions have changed since then. It now has a large and influential readership and I have the privilege of placing into the public domain what seem to me to be desirable advances in policy. So, wearing different hats, I sometimes write about developments in my field, I sometimes push policy objectives and I sometimes sit back and reflect on what’s really at stake with tax issues in the news.

What compels you to sit down and write?

Writing a blog is a pretty serious commitment; I probably spend eight or nine hours on it in an average week. That takes some managing alongside my practice – in the intervening period I’ve taken Silk – my responsibilities as a father of three young children and an occasional role helping out the Labour Party on tax stuff.

Usually, I wake in the small hours with a thought that’s been percolating for a few days or weeks and the urge to get it down on paper. Basically, you need the energy and working patterns of Samuel Johnson.

In your head when you write, who are you talking to? Do you have an ideal reader in mind?

I write for the layperson but my readership is pretty diverse, including politicians, policy-makers and journalists. The latter, of course, links me to a broader audience which is very satisfying, especially so when I hear people say that it was an interesting read but it was only when they got to the end that they realised how much they’d learnt.

Who is your actual audience now that the blog has developed and what is the reach of the blog?

The blog is not affiliated to any broadcast outlet. But, because of the profile it has given me, I feature in the mainstream print and broadcast media about once a week on average.

This means a typical piece might be read three or four thousand times – but if a piece gets taken up by the press, it can be read tens or even hundreds of thousands of times. There’s a rather odd correlation I have noticed between how long something takes me to write and how many times it gets read: basically the less time it takes me, the more readers it gets. I guess that’s because people like the immediacy of shorter, punchier pieces. But they’re usually less interesting or satisfying for me to write so I try to mix things up.

What sort of dialogue/ interactivity has developed with your audience? Are all reactions welcome or some more preferable than others?

I couldn’t have done any of this without Twitter which is the perfect medium for promoting a blog. Tax issues often tend to be deeply political – although not always party political – so you have to be prepared for some hostility. But that’s fine – much better than being ignored.

Recently, you have written a great deal on the Referendum. What has drawn you to writing about this area?

What interests me, in normal times, is the relationship between tax and politics. (How can I help the public see behind the headlines to what is really going on? And how can I try to bring pressure to bear on the government to act in ways that look to me to be consistent with better governance?) However, these are not normal times. The result of the referendum has, I think rightly, dislodged almost all other political concerns from the public eye. Many of us are alarmed about what the result means for the UK: constitutionally, economically and socially. It may be the defining national political event of our lives.

I responded to it on my blog by writing about a question which looks likely to dominate the legal landscape in the coming months: the referendum, which could have mandated the government to leave the EU, was instead only advisory. The public advised we should Leave – but who did it advise? The Prime Minister, exercising the Royal prerogative, or Parliament? I used my presence in the mainstream and social media to help crowd-fund money to initiate a challenge to the government’s view that the Prime Minister alone could decide whether we should ‘Brexit’. I hope this initiative – which I have now passed over to a test claimant – will continue to run alongside a separate challenge led by Lord Pannick QC.

What do you think lies ahead?

Who can tell what lies ahead? Not me, for sure. But I do think our political classes are already beginning to recoil from the complexity, and economic and social damage, that it is clear will be precipitated by leaving the EU. I would not be at all surprised to see an early deal being struck between us and those who, for now, are our European partners. Such a deal might deliver some largely superficial, and not wholly beneficial, changes to the nature of our relationship with the rest of the EU. I hope we might then, collectively, begin to address the economic imbalances in our society that contributed to the referendum result.

Has the creation of the blog helped raise the profile of your practice or chambers? If so, how has it been advantageous or useful professionally?

I have no doubt that writing a really interesting technical, professional blog can help you raise your profile. And – although that’s never really been my aim – lead to an improvement in the quality of your practice. But you have to decide where you want to sit on the spectrum stretching from bland/unread to punchy/well read. That’s a much easier judgment call to make at the Bar – where ultimately it’s only your own practice you need to have regard to – than it is at professional firms. I have to say, collectively, I think we’re missing a big opportunity.

How and in what ways do you feel your blog has, so far, been influential? How do you see it developing in the future?

Well, I’ve succeeded in getting policy proposals into the last Labour Party’s manifesto – and also on a couple of occasions onto the statute books. It’s given me a decent profile in the mainstream print and broadcast media and I’m also considering a request by a couple of mainstream publishers to write a book about how the tax system really works.

If we are living in a ‘golden age for journalism’, what do you consider the constituents of a really good blog?

There are lots of things a blog can do that other media can’t. If you’re dealing with points of particular sensitivity, where your ‘take’ is less likely to be taken on trust by your readers, the ability to hyperlink to or snip pictures from the source documents is really vital. The other thing only a blog – properly promoted – can do is find readers for arcane subjects: how else are you going to get thousands of people to read a detailed critique on governance arrangements at our tax authority? 

Contributor Jolyon Maugham QC, Waiting for Godot: musings on tax 

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Jolyon Maugham QC

Jolyon has a predominantly litigation-based practice in the fields of direct and indirect tax. He is Director of the Good Law Project and runs the blog waitingfortax.com.