God, the economy’s depressing.
“We’re all in this together” has been the rallying cry of the government in recent months, as a way of urging the poor and the disabled to stop moaning about how much extra financial burden they’re having to bear these days, while corporation tax is cut and the banks are still doing well enough to hand out billions of pounds in bonuses.
None of what I’m saying is original or new. This is all widely understood – so much so that it’s somehow become boring. I can’t be the only one getting some kind of inequality horror fatigue by this point. It’s either that or go insane.
I’m pretty sure my brain really does tune a lot of this reality out quite frequently, assuring itself that since nobody I know is yet at the point of being evicted from their hole in the ground everything must be basically okay. Even if it is evidently all terrible.
But a recent interview on the Little Atoms radio show with Johann Hari made it all seem crushingly real again. His passion is surely a more important and commendable approach to all this bollocks than my own numbed stupor, but the very strong impression that there’s nothing I can really do about any of this myself is a big part of the problem.
But, right though he is to be inflamed to action by the injustice at work, I think Johann sometimes had his focus in the wrong place.
For instance. It’s been calculated that Vodafone have avoided paying £6 billion in tax. There’s a lot of dispute over that figure, and I can’t find anything which promises to resolve with any certainty how accurate it really is. But it’s not in dispute that tax avoidance is a massive issue, corresponding to a huge amount of potential revenue. The kind of revenue that might be handy to bother collecting at a time when things are so tight we’re having to close public libraries to save every penny we can.
Johann highlights the work done by protesters against Vodafone, who have picketed stores and drawn a great deal of media attention to the issue of tax avoidance, comparing just how much money could be collected from corporations in comparison with what’s being cut from welfare, and how this “tax gap” dwarfs even the billions lost to, say, the benefit fraud that so enrages the tabloids in this country.
And I totally share his admiration for these people, whose pro-activity puts me to shame, and who have done such consistent work to keep these issues a prominent part of the public discussion. They’re heroes who give me hope that we might somehow get through this.
But, aside from the important publicity and general raising of my spirits, I don’t think their current methods are going to achieve what they want to achieve.
The problem with tax “avoidance” (rather than illegal “evasion”) is that of funds being funnelled through loopholes, such that the letter of the law is obeyed while any sense of justice or fairness or proportionality is entirely sidestepped. Topshop owner Philip Green, for example, gave his wife a billion pounds, so that he could avoid paying any tax on it at all (she lives in Monaco, presumably for this exact purpose).
Topshop were protested as well, with campaigners turning up at branches with placards and demanding that the fat cats cough up. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have worked yet.
And the thing is, it shouldn’t surprise us that it hasn’t.
The protesters are urging companies to pay more taxes than they currently legally have to. Many of these companies no doubt should pay more taxes than they currently legally have to. But corporations don’t have guilt. That’s a people thing. They exist only to succeed as businesses, and they have no civic pride to appeal to.
Right now, it just doesn’t make sense for Vodafone to hand over billions of pounds when they don’t have to, no matter how much it might help the country, or how much some other people insist they ought to. And a few branches being closed down for a day by protesters isn’t going to make nearly enough of a dent in their finances that it becomes worth their while to give in to their substantial demands.
Corporations don’t pay tax because an informal social movement insists that they ought to, or because it’ll help provide useful public services for non-shareholders.
What makes a corporation pay its taxes is the knowledge that, if it doesn’t, men with guns will physically remove the CEO from his office and lock him in a cage.
And the problem is that this isn’t happening, either because the tax-dodging going on isn’t illegal, or because the rules against it aren’t being legally enforced. And the people who ought to be doing something about this are the politicians and law-makers.
I’m not saying UK Uncut doesn’t know this, or that the protests that do target the corporations themselves are futile – as I’ve said, they are fantastically attention-grabbing and do a lot to keep this sentiment relevant. But it’s worth being aware which goals are likely to result from which strategies, especially considering the limited potential of appealing to a faceless business entity’s “better nature”.