HMRC's Home for Peculiar Practice

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There has always been something about the Rangers tax saga that didn’t quite sit right. Perhaps it’s down to the surrealism of watching something you care about being in peril or being ripped apart. The out-of-body helplessness of knowing that you cannot stop this slow-motion car crash. Knowing that there are things beyond understanding and influence that have been set in motion and no amount of wishful thinking or shouting into the void can change.

An inevitable checkmate - that’s what it felt like, to me anyway. Like a pre-determined plan that had been arranged and it was only revealed once the game was two or more steps further ahead. It became clear that this wasn’t your typical story playing out (or more accurately this wasn’t a story playing out in the usual way). The characters and actors in the play weren’t behaving quite as you’d expect, or in-line with how they had before or usually would. A lot of it was simply unusual.

The recent revelations that HMRC miscalculated Rangers tax liabilities rekindled many dormant and buried emotions. I’ve been content, recently, for it to stay buried and instead enjoy Steven Gerrard’s team take on the world. But with this latest news I was hopeful that this would shine some light on long unanswered questions, to start to give the sorry episode some closure.

£70m or £20m? That’s certainly the line that has received the headlines and most of the content, but that alone somehow feels hollow and superficial. The amount and the “what” of this discrepancy matter to a degree, but the “how, why and who” matter more to me. They are immeasurably more important.

Time has proven many suspicions over subsequent years and there’s no better example than our beloved BBC Scotland. What were originally just reporters breaking the news have shown and proven themselves over and over again to be nothing more than rival fans that cannot treat Rangers the same as other clubs. It’s a tick in the box where tribal commitment counts for more than professional decency (never mind the BBCs own charter). And yet that is exactly what we have seen.

However, with hindsight, this has not been isolated to the BBC. The sports-page tax-case champions at the Herald, the Scotsman, Daily Record, Daily Mail often showed the same characteristics of being rival fans with little restraint or filter when tackling Rangers stories. Always more than happy to drive the narrative, and always in the same direction – downwards and negative, as negative as possible.

This was indicative of Rangers losing any grip on the media. From being a represented part and player in the media, it appeared that by 2011 any presence or influence was totally absent. The deck was cleared and the rules changed. Traditional broadcasting protocol would dictate that the team in the news would be represented in some form, either in delivering the news or in its comment and dissection. But with Rangers and the business of football due process and fair-hearing was stripped away. It was cold, it was calculated and any compassion was omitted. No consideration was given to the fact a very large number of fellow citizens were genuinely struggling with the events and that people could and would lose their livelihoods due to Rangers sudden contraction. But this new style of media wasn’t open to all. And had the excuse of it's news or it sells papers been enough then we would’ve seen Rangers-minded reporters stepping up and returning the volley. But we didn’t and it was all rather one-way and selective. A bit much, a bit spiteful and more than a bit unprofessional.

Which brings us back to the HMRC and leads to further questions. Our friends in the press do tell us that it had to be that way. It really didn’t. The route Rangers took was unprecedented. The total price that the club and support have paid is unprecedented in football. The truth is that the debts and actions of Rangers were more average than excessive. Inhibiting and certainly unwanted but unspectacular. Other clubs have had higher debts, have sailed closer to the wind, have actually indulged in practises much worse than EBTs. None have been put through what happened to Rangers. From the bank, to the taxman, the SFA, the SPL, rival clubs and our beloved press - what was unprecedented were the actions of those third parties and external agents. Uncompromising and unfair. Often extreme. And more often than not behaviour that was unusual, different from the norm. Late night tweets from government departments about live legal investigations? That's downright bizarre, yet hardly questioned.

Our brains use patterns and routine to sort through the deluge of information delivered to it. Events and occurrences crop up and the brain begins its processing. Have I seen this situation before? Is this routine? Is this normal? If it is then auto-pilot kicks in and the tape plays out in the background as anticipated. If something crops up that doesn’t fit our understanding or our model of what’s expected then our brain puts up a flag and instructs us to pay closer attention, to analyse until we understand and recognise what we’re processing.

With that in mind, much of the Rangers saga was unusual and consistently so in a way to disadvantage the club. The press, I mentioned – led by a feral gang of rival fans. The governing bodies, who saw fit to put the well-being of a member club (and the health and best interests of the national game) into the hands of rival fans. Very peculiar. Apparent leaks within HMRC providing information and updates to active anti-Rangers groups; wit their information cherry-picked by the media and their pitchforks. What kind of employee would do that? What benefit from pushing the envelope to its pliable limits or its most ridiculous extreme? Fan speculation would also question the actions of Lloyds Banking Group, who was involved and what their drivers were?

It’s only natural to ask questions. There were clearly so many unusual actions contributing to the tide against Rangers. And within that group the same similarities would appear again and again. A pattern in which rival fans stepped outside their remit to make things as uncomfortable as possible for their chosen opponent. Any one incident on its own could be dismissed but it occurred with such regularity that it only strengthened the hypothesis. And the natural instinct is to expand that theory and apply it to any other bumps in the road. And a lot of the time it fits. Once that pattern has repeated enough times it transcends paranoia, it’s then probability. And that would truly be a scandal of sporting integrity.

So, could things have been different? Of course they could. Murray’s failure and negligence are still pivotal in this as he’s the fool that left the door open before being (willingly?) 'duped' by Craig Whyte. However, a steady and well led Rangers could have serviced any worst-case debt AND repelled the external onslaught (as we now know it to be) - indeed, this could’ve been a much quicker and less painful route than the one we eventually took.

- Another time (or simply just another set of personnel) and HMRC could’ve agreed a settlement, like they did for many other British football clubs.
- A different tax office in another area of the country and perhaps their leaks could’ve been prevented and the club allowed the courtesy to deal with their tax issues out of the spotlight.
- Another time and the unsightly Green and Whyte stain on our clubs’ fabric would have been avoided altogether.
- Another universe (or perhaps anywhere else other than the West of Scotland) and the press could’ve dealt with it rationally and professionally, without the hyperbole and the needle. We have seen how stories can be suppressed when it suits the press to do so. Or we only need look to England to see clubs given a fair shout and often helped out where possible.
- The governing bodies could’ve acted responsibly and actually governed and led instead of joining the mob at the first opportunity.

In short, had it been allowed to take its natural course, the course usually afforded to football clubs, then Rangers saga could have looked like any other club who had a wobble, had to tighten its belt and spent some time sorting itself out. Reasonable and warranted punishment could have been applied. A very average story indeed.

But that was denied to us and the questions remain unanswered. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the truth beyond best fit theories and hearsay - in some cases that is enough as the evidence is now unequivocal. In many cases, the pattern of unprofessional tribal behaviour appears to continue unabated. Or where breaches of standards have been identified or admitted then they have been dealt with very discreetly. The amount of time now lapsed and the can of worms it would open would probably rule out a voluntary admission of foul play or collusion from those involved - indeed, the HMRC appear to be doubling down (against evidence to the contrary). I know what it looks like to me, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for our press to investigate and ask the questions we all want to see asked.

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