Editorial: Who Pays? Who Benefits?

Gurminder K Bhambra

Taxation – and the ways in which it is returned to citizens through welfare – is one of the main ways in which the ‘imagined community’ of the nation comes into being. That is, the relationship between taxes and welfare is part of the process of constructing the institutions that contribute to the idea of the nation. While taxation was initially seen to be a significant factor in a state’s ability to wage war, by the mid-twentieth century it became more extensively bound up with its implementation of domestic welfare measures. The relationship between taxation and welfare, then, is integral to the idea of who we are nationally.

It is also part of the configuration of global structures of contemporary inequality. If we were to recognise that the ‘imagined community’ was built not only through national taxes, but also colonial ones, how might that change our understanding of what it is to be British today? Few in Britain understand the extent to which national projects – from social welfare and health services to cultural institutions such as country houses, museums, and galleries – have been enabled through the taxes paid by former colonial subjects.

In this issue, the various contributors examine different aspects of the relationship between who pays and who benefits, addressing the longer colonial histories that have shaped national institutions and ideas of legitimate claims upon a supposed national patrimony.

Alex Cobham argues that this is not just a reckoning with the past, but also a rebuilding for the future. If the social contract in Britain currently appears broken – as 62 per cent of those questioned believe – perhaps that contract can be rebuilt around ideas of tax justice. Cobham suggests that it is only when a population believes that the money disbursed is its own that it is motivated to hold the government to account for how it is spent. The corrupting influences of historical colonial bounty and on-going practices of tax havenry have violated the generalised webs of reciprocity that legitimate the relationship between taxation and welfare. These can only be repaired, he argues, by starting with a full and frank conversation of where the money has come from and how we account for its legacies in the present.

In discussion of non-domiciled tax-payers, Mike Savage similarly suggests that what may seem like an arcane loophole – the non-dom clause – is nonetheless ‘deeply redolent of embedded cultures of class, race and imperial power’ in Britain today, highlighting a variety of dimensions of inequality. In discussing the history of the clause, Savage highlights Lloyd George’s statement in 1906 that ‘the citizen of the empire, who is not domiciled in this country’, was exempted from income tax on their overseas income. Interestingly, as I’ve argued elsewhere, this did not exempt colonial citizens domiciled elsewhere from having to pay income tax to the British government in Westminster!

The special treatment of elites has been clearly illustrated in the inheritance rules applying to the monarchy as Charles became king. Laura Clancy sets out the many ways – beyond simply not paying inheritance tax – that the monarchy evades such generalised obligations through claims of historical precedence. Accountability is central to the legitimacy implied in the question of this issue, ‘Who pays? Who benefits?’ Clancy suggests that who gets to decide what accountability is, is also a necessary question to answer in addressing the broader issue of how systems of global inequality are reproduced.

Karen Rowlingson focuses on how stereotypical ideas of who taxpayers are and who the recipients of welfare are skews the debate on the relationship between taxation and welfare, as is evident in characterising the former as ‘hard-working’ and the latter as ‘idle’. The two groups – taxpayers and recipients – tend to be presented as distinct and yet in reality almost everyone is a taxpayer and everyone has some benefit from public spending. The inequalities that actually structure the relationship are much less discussed – for example, that taxes on income from wealth are taxed at a far lower rate than taxes on work. Reform of the tax system by increasing taxes on wealth and restricting tax loopholes would provide more money for public services for us all.

If the relationship between taxation and public services – specifically the NHS – is only thought about within a national frame, as John Narayan sets out, it obscures the contributions that have been made, and continue to be made, by others beyond the UK. Building on research that demonstrates the centrality of empire to the establishment of the NHS, Narayan highlights ongoing extractive processes by the NHS. He focuses on its recruitment of nurses and other healthcare personnel from countries on the World Health Organization’s red list, that is, countries from the Global South that already have an insufficient availability of health workers. These poorer countries pay for the education and training of healthcare workers that are then recruited by the NHS for the benefit of the population here. The broader implication of Narayan’s argument is to upend the standard understanding of who pays and who benefits that has been a central part of populist politics over the past decades.

When John Hills drew attention to the redistributive effects of the welfare state three decades ago, he argued that this ‘cannot be judged just by looking at who benefits from it … One also has to look at who pays for it through the tax system and in other ways.’ As the articles in this issue show, we need to consider those ‘other ways’ in much broader terms than is usual to also include the contributions made to Britain by those from its formerly colonized territories.

Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies at the University of Sussex. She is author of Connected Sociologies and the award-winning Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination. She is also co-editor of Decolonising the University and co-author, with John Holmwood, of Colonialism and Modern Social Theory.

Header Image Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões


Bhambra, Gurminder K 2023. ‘Editorial: Who Pays? Who Benefits?’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (3): https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2023.03.0001