Drinking outside the Bucks

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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 expos√© 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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