Goodbye to a marvellous racket

Stephen Bates welcomes the end of duty-free and sees in it a rare victory for social justice over th

This Easter, as you idly stroll the marble halls of some duty-free emporium while waiting for your holiday flight, pondering your last chance to choose between a bottle of that strange-coloured local liqueur or Old MacSporran's oak-cask-matured 25-year-old malt whisky, pause just a moment for quiet reflection. Even if it means you will no longer be able to weigh yourself down with a bottle of something you would never otherwise have thought of buying, you may still be able to derive limited satisfaction from the abolition of duty-free sales, for it reflects an increasingly rare victory for the European Union over the power of corporate lobbying.

That it has come about with no thanks to our government, which backed the corporate case, should produce a sobriety that not even MacSporran could dispel.

Duty-free - that long-established wheeze by which airports and ferry operators, airlines and terminal owners tempt passengers into buying at least partially tax-free goods such as drink, cigarettes and electrical goods supposedly cheaper than they can buy them in local shops - will end on 30 June this year for travel in the European Union. (It will remain for transcontinental travellers.)

It was a deal done and dusted eight years ago by the governments of the EU. To have reopened the issue would have required not just majority consent but unanimity from all 15 member states. Now there is no chance of that happening, though the duty-free lobby was still clinging to that hope this week.

Far from being a time-hallowed perk of sailors and air crew, duty-free is a commercial lure to part passengers from their money. It dates all the way back to 1947 when Shannon airport, desperate to win a piece of the transatlantic trade, introduced cheap sales. It has become big business. It is now worth £12 billion a year worldwide, nearly £5 billion of that in Europe, £1 billion in Britain alone. Those figures have doubled since the EU decided to phase out duty-free in 1991. The industry itself estimates that 140,000 people depend on such sales for their jobs and that over 80 per cent of all duty-free goods sold across the world are made in Europe.

The arguments for getting rid of duty-free are largely practical. The practice currently amounts to a subsidy of about £1.4 billion a year to duty-free companies; that is the amount they do not have to pay in excise and tax on their sales. The European Commission wanted to end it because it is an anomaly in the EU's supposedly single market, which is meant to preclude unfair competitive advantages between member states and companies. It is also a form of commerce that benefits only those who travel and disadvantages those who do not, who have to pay higher prices for the same products in their local shops because of it. The more you travel abroad, the more you're subsidised: business travellers most of all. Furthermore, it does not benefit all travellers equally - you can buy duty-free if you catch a plane to Paris but not if you go by bus or train.

As travellers know, not all duty-free sales are the bargains they seem and, because tax rates and discounts vary, that cheap bottle of ouzo you bought while waiting for the ferry may actually be cheaper in the shops when you get to your destination. And, if you want to be really po-faced about it, duty-free encourages people to buy more alcohol and cigarettes than is good for them, or at least than they otherwise would.

The European Union originally wanted to end duty-free in 1993, but it was postponed until 1999 to give the industry a chance to adjust gradually. Instead it has used the past eight years to build ever larger duty-free shops and shopping malls in the airports and terminals of Europe, to expand sales - and to lobby remorselessly and expensively to stave off the change. This week it was complaining about a "sudden" decision.

It has been a powerful campaign, costing millions (why stint when there is so much potential gain?), spearheaded by the owners and assisted by trade unions representing workers in the travel industry. In Brussels the lobbying has been masterminded on behalf of the International Duty Free Confederation by John Hume, son of the saintly Northern Ireland peace campaigner.

The industry has a case in saying that, as the European single market is still far from completion and there is no agreement on what duty should be levied on goods bought in transit, abolition is likely to leave an unsatisfactory vacuum. As you travel from Britain to France you will pay British rates of VAT; in the opposite direction, French rates. In mid-Channel, excise rates will change, which means you had better make your purchases on the French side of the line. If you sense a Commission ambition to harmonise excise duties and VAT you would not be mistaken.

More tendentious has been the argument that the end of duty-free means fares will rise and airports will lose investment. It beggars the question why these companies have been investing in their airport shopping malls these past few years. Are they really expecting to have to close them down? Or will they find another way of enticing passengers in?

The industry has naturally based its arguments largely on the effect the end of duty-free will have on employment rather than profits. It has claimed that more than a third of jobs may have to go, that half the airports of Europe will have to close and that ferry services will be decimated. It has been sad to see disconsolate ferry seamen and air cabin crews bussed to Brussels to complain that they are likely to be thrown out of work, with the connivance of the very employers who are about to sack them. As the driving rain drips remorselessly off their placards, they look like troops being prodded over the top by staff safe in their nice dry billets behind the lines at corporate headquarters. The Commission's study this week found claims of job losses were much exaggerated.

This time last year there wasn't a prayer for a postponement of the end of duty-free, no chance of the unanimity among the 15 member states required to reprieve it. When Ireland's finance minister Charlie McCreevy fought for the issue to be re-opened last May, he looked to be on his own. Britain's Gordon Brown dismissed the suggestion brusquely as something that had been already decided.

Slowly, however, duty-free seeped back onto the agenda. It started with Gerhard Schroder's election campaign in Germany where, to garner votes along the Baltic coast, he came out in favour of a review of the effect of the ban - there is a profitable trade in Baltic shopping cruises. Then the French premier Lionel Jospin commissioned an MP, fortuitously from Calais, to conduct a survey on likely job losses.

With France and Germany on board for a review, the British government also jumped ship. In December, at a meeting in Brussels, Brown suddenly discovered that he had always been in favour of a review, too. So unexpected was his discovery that, the evening before, officials in Whitehall had been briefing journalists that the government saw no reason to reopen a long-decided issue. Now suddenly the original decision was all the fault of previous Tory ministers. Brown even had the nerve to chide journalists for getting the government's position wrong.

The source of this Damascene miracle was not hard to find. It was the week the Sun dubbed Oskar Lafontaine, the German finance minister, the most dangerous man in Europe for his ideas on tax harmonisation. The tabloids were also beginning to make menacing noises about the loss of "our" duty-free. A couple of weeks later at the EU summit in Vienna, Tony Blair, who might otherwise have been under the newspapers' cosh over Britain's budgetary rebate or the tax harmonisation wrangle, was suddenly also claiming to be battling for duty-free. Heads of government spent an hour discussing the issue instead of the anticipated two minutes. Other member states reluctantly agreed to ask an even more reluctant European Commission to carry out a review of job losses. Blair told the Commission president, Jacques Santer, that he wanted a significant postponement because abolition would lead to "higher fares and much popular unhappiness". Note the emphasis.

Duty-free now looks likely to be abolished this June, but there has been an almighty behind-the-scenes row in the Commission over whether a delay might not after all be expedient. Last week I caught up with a very senior bureaucrat in a Brussels restaurant. He mused: "With all our other problems is this something we really want to go to the wall over? People want it, don't they?"

This week, the duty-free lobby was complaining, of all things, about a lack of democracy in the decision. For once, a limit to the power of corporate lobbying, more like.

Stephen Bates is European affairs editor of the "Guardian"

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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