This week I had occasion to dust off the campervan and spend a couple of nights in parts of rural England where ‘progress’ is moderated by the indigenous population’s affinity to the old ways. Such places give the comforting impression that people still have roots and that there remains some variety in the ‘global village’ we all inhabit. One night was spent at a prosperous-looking farm where the aged but sprightly lady in charge looked and sounded like a 1950s caricature (but drove a state-of-the-art Land Cruiser). The next night I was on a smallholding where the rooster woke us in the early hours. Charmingly rustic, I thought, and a change from the screech of emergency sirens back home. The smallholder, however, complained that it had woken him and that, since it was probably a fox alert, he could not get back to sleep.
I ended up in Lincolnshire, where the land is a larder and every village has a butcher’s shop – sometimes two. Like a man drinking in the last-chance saloon, I stocked up on locally produced delicacies such as stuffed chine, pork pies, haslet and award-winning Lincolnshire sausages. The good thing about traditions is that some of them are really rather good.
I got back to Manchester in time to deal with the tax deadline. I transferred what I owed HMRC online, while waiting for the plumber to turn up. He was an hour late. “Sorry,” he said “I had to go to the post office to pay my tax.”
“You found a post office?” I said. He did not look amused. I tried introducing the hot topic of the day, Google’s agreement to pay a paltry sum of tax – more as a PR exercise than an acknowledgement of liability – but my man had his head in the cistern and was not really following the argument.
“I only just made it. They fine you if you pay late,” was all he said.
Later I read about the problems of social deprivation which are plaguing Seattle, the home of Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon – notorious tax-avoiders all. The city, like most others, does not have the resources to deal fully with homelessness, drug-addiction and crime, yet its public penury could be remedied by a contribution from the massive wealth of its corporations. Do corporations think that they exist in a separate universe? Henry Ford had at least the sense to see that paying his employees a decent wage enabled them to have sufficient disposable income with which to buy his cars. His motive may have been more selfish than philanthropic but it was certainly a practical approach to the new economics of industrialisation. I hear that Walmart has decided to do something similar and that there is even a tech company in California which is experimenting with paying all its employees the same rate. But these are examples of exceptional corporate policy. We cannot rely on corporations to do the right thing: “corporations have neither bodies to be punished nor souls to be condemned; they therefore do as they like.”*
And if what they like is to avoid paying tax, they are well placed. Having transformed themselves into global entities they can effectively ignore national tax jurisdictions. The global village works fine for them: it’s one big market-place with no tax-gathering authority in attendance. While lunching on poached egg and haslet, however, I thought of a possible solution to this conundrum: authorise the United Nations to collect taxes. Recalcitrant payers could be threatened with its peacekeeping force although, on reflection, the mechanisms for collecting and allocating the monies raised would probably swallow up most of the revenue. And there would remain local issues: we wouldn’t want the plumber facing international sanctions for not getting to the post office on time.
*Edward Thurlow, 1st Baron Thurlow: was Lord Chancellor from 1778 to 1783 and again from 1783 to 1792.