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?

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge