I should think David Cameron, our Prime Minister, must be pulling a rueful face just now and wishing that he'd ignored the advice he was given, or his own personal impulse, to apply the following maxims, which might otherwise seem quite reasonable:
# Say as little as possible.
# Hold fast to the principle that a purely private matter is nobody else's business.
# Stoutly assert that no law has been broken, nothing wrong has been done, and all taxes payable have been declared and duly paid.
For these maxims have proved ineffective. Politicians in important positions are not allowed to stonewall. He's had to cough up the details bit by bit, and it doesn't look good, having 'the truth' dragged out of him like this. Rightly or wrongly, he has lost some personal credibility.
Most people don't like being kept in the dark on something they feel they should have been told. This is David Cameron's present problem. He is an important man. A high standard of personal frankness is appropriate. But he is now blemished because he wasn't at first as frank as he should have been. People do expect a well-remunerated person to pop spare cash in various places. Nothing wrong with that. But those investments mustn't have a bad whiff about them. Nor be hidden behind a smokescreen. People want their national leaders to show exemplary transparency, and not attempt to hide the facts. Concealment raises eyebrows, provokes questions, and earns disapproval.
The disclosures so far suggest that everything was done before he became Prime Minister, and that the 'offensive' offshore investments used an unremarkable financial vehicle well-known to the tax authorities, and tolerated at the time. But Mr Cameron should have known that being parsimonious with disclosure is fatal. His judgement was at fault. Even if you are entitled by law to be sparing with the particulars, any form of concealment is damaging. It always leads to embarrassment and a lessening of personal authority. People don't feel they can accept anything you say at face value any more. Respect seeps away. Enemies exult, and make political capital - although that is also a dangerous game, if they have dabbled too. For they might easily be found out. Total secrecy can't be absolutely guaranteed any more. Large-scale, unexpected, unforeseeable leaks of damning documents and communications can occur at any moment. There will always be investigators willing to risk everything to unearth the truth, and moles inside the organisation who will blow the whistle.
I dare say that tax authorities everywhere will now be under intense pressure to curb these abuses forthwith. If not from governments, then from outraged citizen groups. The game has been spoiled. Whoever is behind this massive Panamanian leak, they must have high hopes that unethical financial behaviour in high places will now be exposed in every country that matters. They must hope that heads will roll, not just those of the usual suspects, but those belonging to hitherto faceless manipulators and criminals that nobody has ever heard of. And that ultimately a bit more openness and honesty will be the norm.
I do wish them success. But I doubt whether this or any other mass embarrassment will really transform human nature. We all learn early in life that being completely open places ammunition in the hands of ill-intentioned people, and grief will result. We learn to be guarded. It's a pity that it's like this. But wisdom lies in assessing the situation, and if you judge that the other person can't be trusted with anything you tell them, then you will keep quiet.
This applies to personal information of any kind, not just financial information. And there is always a two-way imperative. On one hand, it may be sensible to keep quiet. On the other, it may be unethical to keep quiet, if the matter in question is important. And there's the thing. Which facts are essential, and should always be made clear? And always offered up front?
What about a past criminal record? It does reflect on the character of the person concerned, whether the conviction was for theft, fraud, manslaughter or dangerous driving. Should it be disclosed?
What about past relationships? Should an embarrassingly long list of failed relationships be swept under the carpet and never mentioned?
If I were diabetic or epileptic, or my sight was badly impaired, I would never keep it a secret. I'd want other people to be watching out for any signs of imminent difficulty, and be ready to assist me. So I'd pre-warn them. And infection, or suspected infection, with a contagious disease is something else that can't be concealed. But what about slight deafness? Or a minor deformity? Or a spell in rehab? Are they important enough to disclose?
What about past obesity? Who really needs to know, if the underlying problem is under control through diet or surgery?
Indeed, let's focus on surgery. I've recently heard about two persons who had remedial surgery for a hare lip and cleft palate, and you'd never guess now. Yet is it perfectly ethical to say nothing about disfigurements put right, if that's what the person concerned wants? Should one keep quiet about the nose job done ten years ago? Or about the 'resculpturing' of any part of the body, to make it look nicer, or at least closer to some ideal or norm?
I can see why principled people might insist that there is always a general onus to confess to every kind of medical intervention. They'll say anything done to the body's integrity, certainly anything radical, must be important and therefore a thing to be mentioned. Yet if the scars are now undetectable, and the surgery has produced the hoped-for beneficial effect, and the present-day world sees a healthy, active and happy person, then why bring it up? What rule says one has to?
And if there are tell-tale scars? My own position here is that if those scars will be revealed by bedroom intimacy, then I want to talk and explain. If there is never going to be any such intimacy, then no practical purpose is served by drawing attention to what the surgeon did. So I won't be discussing my stay in hospital some years ago.
It's old news anyway, it doesn't affect the here and now, and it's quite possibly in the realm of 'too much information'. And what kind of morbid-minded ghoul would really want to know all the gory details? I'm not going to pander to mere curiosity.
Nevertheless, the 'transparency principle' is still there, urging full disclosure, and I run the risk of being held dishonest if I don't reveal all. Well so be it. I choose to live dangerously!
But I don't suppose Mr Cameron (and the many other users of offshore investment vehicles at his shoulder) ever thought he was 'living dangerously' by not volunteering a full disclosure of his family wealth.
Supposing he had - suddenly - done so, without any prompting whatever. I wonder whether it would have been greeted with approval or cynicism? Would people have suspected a devious secret agenda? In other words, would being open without pressure being brought to bear actually have invited all kinds of speculation, the disclosure being taken as the opening gambit in a calculated and 'managed' series of confessions?
It's hard to see how a person in his position can ever do the right thing - or anything - without it seeming questionable, given the general lack of faith in politicians. In which case, public figures (including celebrities and powerful sports officials) might well assert that ordinary standards do not apply to them - but in a bad way.
If, that is, they are found out. Thank goodness for the ferreting that goes on by investigative journalists and others to expose dodgy dealings and money movements. If the so-called 'Panamanian Papers' had never come to light, would Mr Cameron (and the rest) have ever come clean?
Ah, who knows.