Ice magic: a tribunal has ruled the Snowball is officially a biscuit. Photo: Corbis
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Felicity Cloake: Let the Gingerbread Man go naked . . . and save us some tax

A court has ruled that the Snowball is a cake, not a biscuit, and is exempt from tax. It’s not the first snack to wriggle out of extra charges. 

Stop the presses! Hold the front page! On 27 June, Scotland’s first-tier tax tribunal ruled that the Snowball, that gloriously gooey, chocolate-coated, coconut-dusted marshmallow confection, is officially a cake, rather than a biscuit.

This may seem a trivial matter, especially if you live south of the border, where the Snowball’s coconut-free cousin the teacake is the better known, but I can assure you it is not. Cakes, unlike chocolate biscuits, are exempt from VAT, which means that the decision was worth £2.8m in back tax for the two Lanarkshire bakers that brought the appeal. A sweet victory indeed.

It was the little details of the judging process I particularly enjoyed: as well as the usual legal pleas, the judges were presented with a plate “comprising a number of confections including one each of a Jaffa Cake, Mr Kipling Bakewell tart, Waitrose meringue, a tea cake manufactured by each appellant, a Lees Snowball and a mini jam Snowcake”.

These were apparently tasted “in moderation”, leaving the pair with tellingly “sticky fingers” of the sort one might end up with when eating “a cake such as a vanilla slice”.

The Snowballs were found to have other significant cake-like characteristics – including an inherent unsuitability for consumption on the hoof. The tribunal was in agreement that “most people would prefer to be sitting when eating a Snowball and possibly, or preferably . . . with a plate, a napkin or a piece of paper or even just a bare table so that the pieces of coconut which fly off do not create a great deal of mess”.

You may recall McVitie’s won similar recognition for its Jaffa Cakes in 1991 by baking a giant 12-inch version to prove its point, while M&S spent 13 years fighting for its chocolate teacakes to be recognised as cakes, rather than the chocolate biscuits the taxman claimed them to be. (A few grams of chocolate can make a good deal of difference: a gingerbread man can have chocolate chip eyes and still retain his zero rating, but if he sports fancy chocolate buttons, he’ll be taxed for his vanity.)

Why cakes and plain biscuits (and, oddly, chocolate body paint) should still be regarded as essential foodstuffs in the face of a swelling obesity crisis is a mystery, but it’s not the only absurdity of the 41-year-old value added tax. Frozen foods are exempt unless they’re designed to be eaten in a frozen state – which makes a baked Alaska tax-free, while the poor old Arctic roll is not.

Potato-based savoury snacks are taxed while tortilla chips, vegetable crisps and Twiglets are zero-rated. (I use the phrase potato-based advisedly: Pringles, which are less than 50 per cent potato, lost their appeal; they are, for tax purposes anyway, officially potato crisps.)

Tapioca-based prawn crackers are considered an essential foodstuff but those made from other cereals are a luxury – though if they’re served in a restaurant they’ll be taxed regardless of what they’re made from. If you get them with your takeaway, however, they’ll almost certainly arrive cold, meaning you don’t have to pay tax on them, which seems fair.

And on the subject of takeaways, who can forget 2012’s Pastygate affair, when outraged sausage-roll lovers forced the Chancellor to back away from his attempts to simplify their taxation?

Admittedly, we’re not the only country whose tax system invites mockery; more than one US state taxes pumpkins differently depending on whether they’re destined to become a dessert or a decoration, which may finally explain the curious American taste for pumpkin pie.

But much as I love the Snowball and its squidgy, sticky, debatably cakey cousins, I’m not sure they deserve a tax break. Let us all eat cake – but let us pay for it, too.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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