Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

David Cameron takes on the tax havens

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 19, 2013 15:48 UTC

There is nothing more likely to spark anger than an unfair tax regime. The American Revolution was founded on it. So the discovery that some of the largest and most successful companies in the world — among them Google, Apple, Amazon and Starbucks – have legally minimized the tax they pay, sometimes to as low as zero, in many nations in which they earn the lion’s share of their revenue is causing considerable irritation.

The result was evident at the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland, where Britain’s conservative government, chairing the conference of the world’s richest nations, put making corporation tax fairer at the top of its agenda, after the civil war in Syria. David Cameron, who like most conservatives believes in low taxes, is in a bind.

In an attempt to reduce public borrowing he is imposing high personal taxation on the Brits — lifting “value added” consumption tax to a record  20 percent — but finds that many of the most profitable companies operating in Britain are dodging taxes altogether. He thinks it is unfair. And so do his voters. He is under intense pressure to deliver a solution or he can expect to be turfed out of Downing Street.

At Davos this year he signaled his intention of doing something about it. “Companies need to wake up and smell the coffee,” he said, “because the customers who buy from them have had enough.” “In a world where some companies navigate their way around legitimate tax systems — and even low tax rates — with an army of clever accountants,” he said, “some forms of avoidance have become so aggressive that I think it’s time to call for more responsibility and for governments to act accordingly.”

When it was discovered that Starbucks in the UK paid just $13.46 million in corporation tax in its 14 years of trading, and zero in the last three years, despite UK sales of nearly $626 million in 2011 alone, it sparked an informal boycott by customers that is damaging the company’s bottom line. Amazon had revenue of $5.2 billion in the UK in 2011 yet paid only $2.8 million in taxes. Google, too, has been avoiding UK tax, paying just $16 million in taxes on a turnover between 2006 and 2011 of $18 billion. When Vodafone bought Mannesmann last year for $241 billion, but routed its sale through a tax haven to avoid paying UK tax, angry protests led to the company shutting its flagship London store.

from The Great Debate:

Should Obama mimic David Cameron’s austerity?

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 27, 2011 20:17 UTC

By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.

In medieval times, a key member of a monarch’s retinue was the food taster, a hapless fellow who ate what his master was about to eat. If the taster survived, the food was deemed safe for the king’s consumption. President Obama has a taster of sorts in David Cameron, the British prime minister, who has embarked upon an economic experiment that echoes the recipe of wholesale public spending cuts and tax hikes needed if both sides in Congress are to agree to raising the federal government debt ceiling. How the British economy is faring offers Obama an idea of what a similarly radical policy of cutting and taxing here would mean to the American economy.

Cameron’s election in May 2010 coincided with the start of the Greek debt crisis. The Bank of England governor Mervyn King warned him that the public debt in the UK was so large that Britain, too, might see its lending become impossibly expensive, so Cameron decided that there was no time to lose in putting the fiscal books in order. He decided to slash public spending by 25 per cent over four years and immediately raise value added tax on goods and services from 17.5 to 20 per cent. Such a radical remedy found favor with the rump of British Conservatives who felt that Margaret Thatcher’s free-market, small government, “sound money” policies of the Eighties had not been pressed to their limit. In turn, Thatcher’s prescription to reduce the size of the state derived from her favorite thinker Friedrich Hayek, the author of “The Road to Serfdom,” who believed like many Tea Party supporters that government intervention inevitably leads to tyranny.

Cameron’s experiment in applying a radical cure to the British economy caught the attention of a number of conservatives here, among them George W. Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson, who wrote in the Washington Post, “If Cameron’s approach works -- dramatically cutting deficits without stalling economic growth -- it will be an obvious, powerful example for America.” “If only the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress had been so courageous. Instead, they are choosing to put off these big decisions,” moaned Matthew Bishop, New York bureau chief of the Economist, in a piece co-authored with Michael Green in the Wall Street Journal. Even Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner thought the British experiment worth trying. “I am very impressed, as one man’s view looking from a distance, at the basic strategy [Cameron] has adopted,” Geithner told the BBC.

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