Kite marks for paying tax, the end of the energy industry and Paul Dacre’s ten-foot lizards

Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said that socialism took up too many evenings. Now it involves rather a lot of shopping trips or, at least, mouse clicks. Amazon, Google, Starbucks, Apple, Facebook and many others should be boycotted because, we are told, they do not pay sufficient tax. Several of the guilty companies, I fear, have become almost indispensable to my working life and it is not always easy to find acceptable alternatives.

In any case, the ethics are not straightforward. For example, AbeBooks (owned by Amazon) allows me to purchase from second-hand bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, while many Starbucks outlets are franchises that are owned not by the corporation that paid no UK corporation tax in the past three years but by humble folk, often immigrants. Besides, even if I get my books from the local bookshop or drink coffee at a greasy spoon, how can I be sure that their owners are paying their fair share of tax?

One solution is for HMRC to introduce a Kitemark-style system, allowing companies that pay full corporation tax to display an official logo inside and outside their stores and on their websites. It could award stars, with a maximum of five for those that also pay VAT in full and on time and can show that their directors pay full UK income tax. It could also publish an online “good taxpayer guide” with a searchable database so that if, say, you wanted to buy socks from a company that contributed properly to the UK exchequer, you could find it with a couple of clicks.

In truth, however, the onus should not be on us. The simplest answer is for the government to close the tax loopholes that companies can legally exploit, including the numerous tax havens under British jurisdiction.

Fuel for thought

David Cameron proposes legislation forcing energy companies to offer just four tariffs, with customers automatically put on the cheapest unless they choose otherwise. In effect, the government, with Ofgem, will dictate energy prices. Heating, lighting and cooking fuel are essential to life, so I have no objection to that. Yet as the energy companies have only ever been able to compete on price – the gas or electricity being identical, whoever supplies it – can anyone explain the point of persisting with a competitive market? Why not cut out the middlemen and renationalise the energy industry?

Conspiracy theory

The Daily Mail has published, over an awesome 12 pages, an exposé of ten-foot lizards (sorry, I mean normal-sized human beings) who are conspiring to destroy our free press. It is a masterpiece of what I call “link” journalism. Show that X sits on the same committee as W who is married to Y whose cousin Z once spent a night at the house of the mass murderer V and, hey presto, X is “linked” to V and therefore to mass murder. Moreover, X probably conspired with W, Y and Z to cover up V’s crimes.

In the Mail’s “special investigation”, X is David Bell, the former chairman of the Financial Timesand a leading figure in “an incestuous network” of left-leaning liberal types, most of them New Labour supporters. Bell is an assessor for the Leveson inquiry, a trustee of Common Purpose (a non-profit group that runs “leadership development” courses) and a cofounder of the Media Standards Trust, which has “spawned” (the Mail’s word) Hacked Off, the campaign against phone-hacking. In these roles, Bell has naturally made lots of “links”, particularly if you count anybody who’s been on a Common Purpose course.

Ayatollah Paul Dacre, “editor” of the Mail, is an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society. He, I can reveal, is “linked” to fellow ambassadors such as Hazel Blears, accused of multiple “flipping” of homes during the MPs’ expenses scandal; Rosie Boycott, the former campaigner for cannabis legalisation; Jo Brand, a republican and admirer of the late Michael Foot; and Robbie Savage, the footballer who once held the alltime record for yellow cards. Surely a conspiracy to undermine the British way of life.

Top of the class

The Sutton Trust reveals, in case we hadn’t noticed, that the majority of “top people” in Britain, even in literature and classical music, were educated at fee-charging schools. Of all professional careers (I exclude the police, sport and pop music from this category), education has the lowest proportion of public-school alumni in leadership positions: “only” 34 per cent. This finding accords with my experience. I have interviewed many prominent educational figures and been struck by how often they come from humble backgrounds. Does this, I wonder, explain why “the education establishment” is so despised and reviled by politicians of all parties?

Headwinds of change

The governor of the Bank of England and the Chancellor keep telling us that the economy faces “headwinds”. A few years ago, they (or their predecessors) would have said it was “on a sticky wicket”. Why the change of metaphor? Perhaps they realise that, since the introduction of covered pitches in cricket, sticky wickets can occur only if the groundsman fails to do his job properly.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?