Drinking outside the Bucks

Starbuckswindow

If I was less busy trying to earn a living, I’d blog every time I had a passing thought that I wanted to solidify, get down and expand upon. Because I don’t have the luxury of spare time at the moment, I often take to the immediate medium of Twitter and type sentences that, at best, come out as pithy aphorisms and, at worst, cheap slogans. I wrote this about Starbucks and the corporation’s notorious UK tax-avoidance doctrine on Monday morning. I enjoyed typing it.

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As you can see, its deft combination of jokey tone and serious message struck a chord with 99 people, who passed it on. (Like Oscar Wilde in a donkey jacket, I cooked it up while walking past a Starbucks that morning and wondering what the patrons inside it thought about the economy they were in.) However, once you’ve dropped a pith-bomb and you are followed by more than a manageable number people, you must expect a percentage of antagonistic responses from people you have never met and will never meet, most of them reasoned and fair, one or two of them simply patronising, insulting, or borne of what seems like misunderstanding for furious effect. I sincerely believe in the power of the consumer. It is the predominant power we have as individuals when there’s not an election taking place.

If we accept – without prejudice – the reality that big business runs the world, because it does, and that politicians largely do the bidding of big business, whether by oiling the wheels, relaxing regulation or, more fundamentally, running an economy based on “growth”, which naturally favours more business and never less, then unless we are on the board of a large global corporation, we live in a world shaped by large global corporations.

Starbucks, which began as a local store in Seattle in the early 70s, arrived in this country in 1998 and, through a successful programme of aggressive expansion, it quickly made a mark on our high streets. A Starbucks coffee was probably the first takeaway coffee I’d ever gone out of my way to buy, not really being a coffee drinker at that point, and certainly no connoisseur.  I enjoyed the drink, albeit mostly the fluffed-up milk, and the relatively new experience (“experience” being the key to the brand’s success, of course). The proliferation of Starbucks, followed by the others that bloomed in its wake, did indeed change the way a nation of tea drinkers viewed coffee. You have to hand that to them. But this soon went sour.

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Before I could settle into a new routine of buying lattes on my way to Broadcasting House, for instance, I read Naomi Klein’s No Logo and my head was turned. Overnight, I despised Starbucks for the way it did business, along with what had become the new usual suspects of corporate greed, sharp practice, exploitation, non-unionisation and bullying: Nike, Gap, Coca Cola, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, you know the drill. I have, in my adult life, given money to some if not all of these corporations. I am not a saint.

But when I feel a boycott is called for, I only have my own conscience to deal with. And the recent exposé of Starbucks’ tax affairs in the UK, the payment of which has been deftly avoided by sleight of hand involving licences, the Netherlands and declaring losses, has put the chain in a lot of people’s sights. It may be that pressure from the MPs – led by Margaret Hodge – who sat on the select committee flicked the switch, and forced the corporate hand into face-saving reparationary action, but it was surely the fear of loss of custom and attendant share price threat that sealed the case.

Give or take the odd exception since 1999, I’ve hardly given any money to Starbucks, so they won’t have noticed my total blanket boycott since the Reuters report into their UK tax-avoidance, but as I always say, if enough people make what seems like a futile gesture, it might just amount to a meaningful one. I once read an interview with Klein, in which, admirably, she admitted to occasionally grabbing a Starbucks if it was the only concession in an airport, say, and she really wanted a coffee.

I admired her candour. It’s easy to avoid Starbucks in any UK high street, as there’s usually another chain nearby, if not an independent outlet. (I understand that Whitbread, the UK hotel and restaurant firm, which owns Costa, pay their full UK corporation tax, so if you must use one of them … ) However, that’s not what I intended to blog about. I was more interested in the nature of the way Twitter extends a dialogue, and why it’s foolhardy to do as I do, which is type in cheap slogans.

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Having published my call-to-arms on Twitter on Monday, I spent way too much of the following days counter-arguing my case with nitpickers and, in some cases, outright apologists for corporate tax-dodging. (There was also one rude bastard who began his reply, “FFS, wake up, man …”, which guaranteed him a blocking. As Billy Bragg says, freedom of speech comes with the freedom not to have to listen.) Most people hit back along the lines of, “Don’t boycott Starbucks; pressure government to close tax loopholes and force HMRC to hit the corporations harder.” This rather assumed that in being angry with a corporation, I was fine with HMRC’s timidity and failure to act, and with the government’s protectionism with regards tax loopholes. I’m not fine with it. (Oh, and I’m not angry with the people who work at HMRC, like the wife of one affable plaintiff on Twitter – “she’s lovely” – I’m angry with the management.)

So, that’s that argument dealt with. Others reckoned my boycott will only harm individual franchises who do pay tax, and throw ordinary, hard-working UK baristas out on the street. Nobody actively wants this. But in the same way, let’s say boycotting a bank because it invests in murderous regimes might ultimately affect those blameless individuals working in the bank who have no control over what their corporate employer does with its money. This kind of joined-up thinking is always enough to push you to the conclusion that it’s better to do nothing. Most people, after all, do nothing. (Except in Syria. And Egypt. And Palestine. And Greece. And so on.)

Other people – nigglers, really – said that if you’re going to boycott one corporation you have to follow through and boycott all corporations who avoid tax, and then they list the other offenders. Hey, the BBC have been caught out encouraging their contracted stars to set up limited companies, through which they are paid, thus reducing tax on both sides, so surely, if I’m so bloody righteous, I should boycott the BBC, too! (And my friends who are contracted BBC employees! Presumably by altering my Christmas card list?) Again, if you tie yourself up in knots, you will end up doing nothing. “They” would much rather you did nothing. We got into this recession by running up credit, and “they” seem to wish us to spend out way out of it by running up even more credit. Where will it all end?

I do not believe in criminal damage, so will not be smashing Starbucks’ windows in. I think UK Uncut’s planned series of civil disobedience sounds admirable, and witty and clever – turning coffee outlets into refuges for women, and creches, which are the worst hit by the cuts, which are linked to our failing economy, which is linked to the very rich not paying their fair share and being given a tacit blessing to Carry On Avoiding, so I’ll be interested to see how that works out tomorrow.

Having just spent a couple of days with Billy Bragg, researching a new chapter for his official biography, I am dangerously fired up with progressive left-wing ardour. His message these days is simple: it’s all about accountability. I’m cutting down on caffeine anyway.

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13 thoughts on “Drinking outside the Bucks

  1. I wrote his official biography, Still Suitable For Miners, in 1998. But we’ve updated it twice, with a new chapter each time, in 2001 and 2007, and we’re doing it again for 2013. It will also be available for the first time as an eBook in the new year. Watch this space.

    • will add to the reading list…I’m devouring autobiogs and biogs at the moment…writing a series of posts for a baking blog based on these life stories. Billy Bragg will be a serious challenge (in my small world), but a good one.

  2. I don’t drink overpriced hot water containing ground beans but I do pay my fair share of tax so feel I can contribute to this discussion.

    Completely agree that the only way to hurt big coporations is in the pocket. Did you see that Starbucks are willing to make a £20m “donation” to HMRC out of the goodness of their hearts? Amazon and others big tax avoiders said they had “no plans” to follow this example.

    I had to laugh when Radio 5 had a tax lawyer on trying to justify Starbuck’s gesture as “setting a dangerous precendent”

    At the end of the day most people would try and avoid paying tax if they could. Rules need to change so that everyone pays their fair share and not just the plebs.

  3. Great post and echoes many of my thoughts. A lot of my friends don’t understand when I say I want to boycott particular companies, saying my lack of custom won’t make any difference. But the point is, as you mention, I want to keep my own conscience in-tact by knowing at least I’m not contributing to the wealth of unhonest corporate bosses and shareholders. And with the amount of publicity the Starbucks case has been given, hopefully it will be enough to spur a more widespread boycott which will hurt Starbucks and make other multinational perpetrators of tax avoidance watch their step.

    I’ve summed up some of my feelings on the issue of boycotting the pharmaceutical company Bayer in a blog post which you might find interesting if you have to time to read it;

    http://dreamingoflooseteeth.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/probably-the-most-evil-company-in-the-world/

  4. Excellent summation of the way I feel about the issue. It’s nice to have someone put this into words for me as I find myself getting angry to the point of ennui on these issues. It’s hard to put a reasoned point across when so frustrated with friends who are so resigned to doing nothing.

    One friend suggested to me the fact Starbucks are running at an apparent loss in the UK means we are lucky they are even here and we should value the jobs they provide. This is the fear Corporations rely on as Naomi Klein points out in No Logo. The 21st century corporation will exploit anything to improve their bottom line – from the use of sweat shops in South East Asia all the way back to the reduction of staff benefit’s in the UK service industry and the elimination of trade unions the world over. What we are being told is to be thankful to even have a job regardless of the pay. I find it incredibly frustrating when I am told that my opinions on tax will only scare away business. This is such a submissive way of thinking and there must be a better way so where better to start than by taking the money we have and spending it in the places that have decided to take some responsibility for their actions.

    The second friend told me that the fault is not with the companies it is with the HMRC. Now as you point out this is certainly true but when we have a government in place that is determined to back business ahead of society then we have no choice but to make those who choose to dodge tax accountable for their choice. Otherwise we are essentially condoning every other company that has a canny immoral accountant to go out and do the same.

    Can’t wait for the Bragg book!

  5. My knee jerks when you say it’s our borrowing that got us into this mess. But it’s nearly Christmas, so suffice to say that that’s what “they” want “us” to believe because “they” want “us” to pay for the mess. Fuck “’em”.

    The bulk of tax avoidance is undertaken by people who could afford to pay it. Thus tax avoidance represents a redistribution of wealth from those without to those with. If you buy from Amazon you’re not doing anything illegal but you’re avoiding tax. The same is true if you buy from Starbucks. Surely it’s that simple. It’s not a matter of futile protests; it’s about doing what you think is right, or what you think is acceptable. Finding places to buy from that do the right thing is another matter.

  6. Is this the same billy bragg you mention in your article that is promoting pre-orders for his new album on Amazon rather than local record stores, or at very least an independent chain that considers tax returns at least as important as his chart returns?

    Your ebook update might be incomplete without at least some consideration given to the intricacies and difficulties of morally-correct consumerism in a world when even the most incorruptible find it hard to navigate, as witnessed here:

    I prefer a milkman that pays his taxes.

    • “Intricacies” is the right word. Although my job is not Billy Bragg’s spokesman, I will say that “chart returns” are not a driving engine of the business he runs. If all he cared about was money, he’d stop doing benefits gigs and turning out for local and national political causes.

      It’s up to individuals where they buy their Billy Bragg album. We do discuss tax and the recession in the new edition of the book – Billy publicly withheld his Income Tax in protest at the then-Labour government’s failure to curb bankers’ bonuses, and took to Speaker’s Corner to make his case, and was fined by HMRC for his trouble.

      For the record, any book is “incomplete” the minute it goes to the printers. I delivered my copy two weeks ago. A lot has happened since then.

      I suggest if you have a problem with the way Billy operates, you address him directly via Twitter or his own forum. He’s a very accessible man, and more than happy to have a discussion about any issue, no matter how intricate. Be brave, don’t come after his biographer.

  7. Apologies: For the record I wasn’t actually “coming after his biographer”. I had in fact not heard back from Billy whose only response to date regarding his choice of pre-order retailer has been to highlight his need “to be taken seriously” and for the chart position of his new album being somehow necessary to achieve that which struck me as being at odds with what I would have expected.

    And I am well aware of his history on these matters. I’m a big big fan and have been for over 20 years, but it’s precisely that which makes the choice being made in this instance all the more puzzling. It’s the actions of an out-and-out commercial operation rather than those of an artist that normally maintains such high moral standards and principles, and who has spoken out against tax-avoidance in the past.

    Judging by the one response I did receive I am not even convinced it is Billy responding – there’s a curious dose of copy-paste in some of his replies. And the response, indicating chart success being necessary for him is at odds with your own comment that it doesn’t actually drive his business anyway.

    In short, it strikes me as deeply hypocritical of him to withhold his tax to object to bankers bonuses and the fact that those were ultimately being paid out of public money (public money being the thing propping up the system) whilst he positively supports organisations in his own industry that are no better than the banks have been in theirs.

    It’s all come a long way from the “pay no more than” monickers blazoned across album covers

    • Apologies for teaching you how to suck eggs! We have much in common, as both fans and – it appears – left-wing ideologues! Billy and I have been friends since the 90s, and I am not expected to agree with him on all matters, nor he with me. What I have always found, though, is that he’ll discuss any issue on the table. He’s a pragmatist. When he drew the wrath of Our Price with his “Pay No More Than” campaign, the chain threatened not to stock his records … but in fact, they carried on stocking them, as they were in the charts. In other words, he drew power from his own success in those early days which gave him the strength to stick to his guns.

      I don’t know how he squares selling through Amazon with his views on tax avoidance. All of my books are available through Amazon, too, although I have never put direct links to Amazon on my website or blog, as I would rather my readers made their own choice. (It’s incredibly easy to put a link, and many do; Twitter is awash with default links to Amazon posted by authors and other artists.) I bought a family member an eBook voucher for Christmas, and as it was for a Kindle, I gave money to Amazon. It was a compromise. If I’d given the recipient cash, they would still have given it to Amazon. On a personal level, you do what you can to match practical action with idealism/activism.

      What I do know is that Billy definitely does his own Twitter account and Facebook etc. He took control of these in 2010 when he and his partner took the Billy Bragg business in-house: management, mail-order, tours, the lot. They now run the operation from home. I also know that his new album Tooth and Nail is key in terms of consolidating his base in America, as he now has to justify every penny he spends, and has self-financed the album for the first time in his career. I think what he means is that album sales (and, by association, chart positions – although bear in mind his last album went to 33) will affect the feasibility of a US tour in 2013. Perhaps in this fairly recent adjustment to being a “cottage industry” he has had to face some difficult economic realities.

      If I’d had more than 6,000 words in which to cover the last seven years for the new chapter, we could have covered this in detail, and a lot more besides. But reality bites.

      Me personally? I’d steer clear of Amazon in terms of encouraging one-click purchasing. But then, most of my income comes from scriptwriting, and almost none from selling books

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