Amazon Tax: A good policy in the bagging area

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Even on her summer holidays and heavily pregnant, Ruth Davidson is doing a better job of running the country that those nominally in charge.

The Scottish Conservative leader last week took on some of the biggest multinationals and posed tough questions about the balance between free markets and fairness.

Writing in a newspaper, she asked: ‘With huge behemoths operating across borders, their incomes greater than whole countries – and a business model that largely eschews physical footprints for the digital marketplace – how can individual nations ensure such online giants play by the rules? Indeed, which rules should apply?’

In her sights were the unholy trinity of the online world: Google, Amazon and Facebook, three companies which enjoy unparalleled power and scarcely even the lightest of regulation. Davidson pointed out that Amazon brought in more money last year than the oil-rich Gulf nation of Kuwait, tripling its profits while paying a third less in corporation tax to the Exchequer.

The Scottish Tory’s solution? An Amazon tax to level the playing field between online and brick-and-mortar retailers. Chancellor Philip Hammond recently touted the same but is now so anonymous within Theresa May’s government that Davidson’s echo was the first noise anyone heard about it.

It was doubly refreshing that a senior Tory was talking about something other than Brexit and writing a newspaper column without starting a religious war.

Calling for a new tax might seem counter-intuitive for a Tory but Davidson has in mind the well-publicised woes of the House of Fraser which, like many high street mainstays, simply cannot compete with Amazon. Too many overheads, too much red tape, too much tax. This is sending time-honoured retailers to the wall and, contrary to the image of plenty projected by Amazon, reduces choice and competition. Canny consumers know what happens to prices when companies morph into monopolies.

Davidson’s Amazon tax has put noses out of joint on the Right of her party among those who aren’t really conservatives at all but libertarians. They say the state should interfere less in the market, not more, and warn that intervention will drive up costs, which will be passed onto consumers. This is a perfectly reasonable contention if you are a libertarian but if you are a Tory, there is more at stake. The Tories are supposed to be the party of small business, not an Ayn Rand book group. Capitalism is to be used to benefit the greatest number of people; it’s not there to be observed like a religious doctrine.

Tories should favour the corner shop over the supermarket and the supermarket over the online retailer because shopping, when you think about it, is a conservative pursuit that strengthens communities.

We’ll never get back to the days when butchers, bakers and greengrocers thrived on the main street of every town and village. Those fortunate enough still to have family-run shops nearby cherish them as much for the rapport with the owner as for their produce. A fresh fillet from the fishmonger will always taste better than those bland slabs of plastic stacked in sinister uniformity down the supermarket; when a family has been in the same business for generations its reputation depends on good quality and value for money.

But for most us, supermarkets are a cheap and easy way to feed the family and run the household and, in their own way, they still keep alive a sense of community. Those of you who battled your way around Tesco or Asda over the weekend may have stopped for a cuppa in the cafe or popped a few tins into the food bank trolley. There was probably a local junior football side or Scouts group helping you pack up your messages and someone collecting for the hospice. You likely bumped into an old friend or former neighbour or had a gab about your summer holiday with the checkout girl.

All this might sound trivial but it’s the very essence of community spirit: familiarity, social bonds, duty, charity — all things any conservative worth the name ought to value. Digital retail is cost-effective, convenient and has been a lifeline for the harassed and the housebound but it should not replace the social experience of the high street, where people come together to talk and trade. The Two Ronnies’ greatest sketch would have been impossible if Ronnie Barker had ordered his fork ‘andles from Amazon.

That is far from the website’s gravest sin. The journalist James Bloodworth went undercover as an Amazon factory worker for his book Hired, a gritty and compelling expose of life in low-pay Britain. What he found would turn Norman Tebbit into a trade union militant. Workers on zero-hours contracts struggling to meet gruelling targets, subjected to body scans and searches, underpaid by their employment agency and facing disciplinary action for being off sick and, in one instance, for having to be sent home after a car accident.

If these conditions sound Dickensian, bear in mind that the pocket or two being picked are ours. Private sector low pay has to be topped up by the Treasury in wealth transfers and social protection.

Why should good companies that treat their staff well face ruin while Amazon enjoys a modest tax bill? Why should taxpayers foot the bill for an arrogant behemoth for whom social responsibility is always out of stock?

Ruth Davidson has again shown that she grasps the true meaning of conservatism. Even so, online retailers are only one side of the story. A Daily Mail investigation this month made a stark discovery: Amazon pays just £2million more in business rates than the House of Fraser despite an annual revenue 11 times that of the department store.

This is unsustainable and, unless checked, will leave the British high street a long, grim streak of pound shops and bookmakers. Ruth Davidson is right to support an Amazon tax but it is not enough to save the nation’s high streets. Business rates will have to be cut in the short term and overhauled in the longer term to reflect the value of shops and shopping to our economy and our communities.

*****

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf posed for photographs on Thursday with Iain Livingstone, the new chief constable of Police Scotland. At time of going to print, Mr Livingstone is yet to resign, which is impressive for that job.

Not least after the Justice Secretary upstaged his unveiling with a bold combination of cerulean shirt and Daz-white cuffs and collar. It was quite the fashion statement and we can only hope the chief constable cautioned Mr Yousaf that it could be taken down and used against him in a court of law. Though, the fact he didn’t slap on the cuffs there and then bodes ill for those hoping the new Police Scotland boss will take a zero-tolerance approach to crime.

In his defence, the suave Mr Yousaf is one of Holyrood’s few interesting dressers. Alex Cole-Hamilton is always snappily turned out but Mr Yousaf’s only rival is luminescent neckwear aficionado Jackson Carlaw. The Tory deputy leader doubles up as Eastwood’s MSP and its nocturnal landing strip.

*****

A digital version of Harry Potter’s wand that teaches children how to code will be in the shops in October. The tech kit is the brainchild of Kano, a company whose computers help children improve their STEM skills. All well and good for the geniuses of tomorrow but those of us with more limited computer skills need just one Hogwarts spell: Passwordus rememberum.

Agree? Disagree? Want to have your say? Email scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk

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