In May 1942, Winston Churchill’s personal lawyer was shown into the cabinet room in 10 Downing Street. At the time, the country was in a life-or-death struggle with Nazism. For all its success in the Battle of Britain, there had been precious little to cheer since: The Germans were pushing into Soviet territory, Britain’s campaign in North Africa was struggling, and Singapore had fallen to the Japanese. In London, though, the prime minister had a personal problem: The country’s tax authorities had ruled that his sale of serial rights for an old piece of writing to a newspaper was taxable. Perennially strapped for cash, Churchill wanted to know whether he could appeal. And if he did, would the public find out?
“Will it be entirely private; can anyone get to know about it?” he asked his lawyer, Anthony Moir, according to an account in the historian Andrew Roberts’s biography, Churchill. Should the prime minister risk undermining his personal authority by trying to reduce his tax bill? Churchill also had a second question for Moir: “Is it right for me, in my position, to appeal; I am also First Lord of the Treasury?”
Churchill knew the importance of perception in politics, the need to maintain public support and morale. Though he had been given enormous powers, thanks to legislation passed years prior, his party remained dominated by supporters of his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, and Churchill’s grip was far from absolute. He did not want to risk the public’s discovering his dispute with the tax authorities. Yet he was also clearly weighing up what the right thing to do was: Even if the saga could be kept secret, was it right for a person in his position to appeal such a decision?