The Row Over the Tampon Tax Could Be a Straw in the Wind

It’s nearly always tax and/or wages that causes revolutions and wars, isn’t it? The Peasant’s Revolt in England (the subject of an excellent new book by Melvyn Bragg)…the English Civil Wars…the American war of Independence…the Bolshevik Russian Revolution…even the 1990 Poll Tax in UK. The broad mass of populations in any country at any time are generally quiescent, pliable and docile. Mostly they are absorbed with the day to day business of living and raising a family and trying to enjoy some diversion from time to time. They often – quite rightly – fear that the replacement will be worse than the lot they have now. But every so often, something will happen that so enrages them that they take up their pitchforks/rifles/banners and rise up to drive out the elites – or at least a change in the leaders in that elite.

In England/UK, since 1649, the elites have been very clever in making JUST ENOUGH concessions to the plebs to stave off a revolution. I expect in terms of the planned cuts in working tax credits, which this week saw – according to some view-points at least – the most extraordinary political events and constitutional challenge in more than a century, this will also be true. There’s been so much comment on this that I don’t intend to dwell too much on that.

What intrigued me though almost as much was that, on the same day as the blue-bloods were upturning the agreements by the elected chamber, that very same House of Commons was discussing a Labour motion to demand the abolition of the so-called Tampon Tax. Now, Tampon is a trademark name, and so should really be called ‘Sanitary Towel Tax’, but this lacks alliteration and doesn’t look so good in a headline, so we’ll stick to Tampon Tax.

The issue is that that these are subject to a 5% VAT levy. That is only a quarter of the full/normal VAT rate applied in the UK. In reality, it’s not a huge amount. But the amount of the tax is not the critical point. The issue is that, no matter if all 650 MPs voted to abolish the tax, supported by every member of the executive, agreed by every one of the 850 (odd)(?) Peers in the Upper House  and given Royal Assent, that 5% levy would still be imposed. This is because VAT – which in the UK began as a replacement to Purchase Tax, levied on ‘luxury goods and services’ – is a European Union tax. And the bonkers rule in the EU is that this is an item that must be subject to VAT; furthermore, the rules state that once something has had VAT imposed on it, the tax can only be reduced to 5%. Not eliminated.

So, when Labour came into office in 1997 they wanted to abolish VAT on energy bills. This was a very popular policy – in a country a cold, damp and windswept country like the UK, fuel bills should certainly not be regarded a luxury, but almost as necessary in winter at least as a near-essential for life. But 5% it stays.

It seems that this fact – along with the dawning realisation sparked by the utter disaster of the Eurozone has made even the most unthinking liberal-lefty type – with their hand-me-down opinions and unquestioning obeisance to whatever is the broad, soft lefty view of the day – question the goodness of the ‘European project’.

‘No taxation without representation’ is what led the English Parliament to put a king on trial and chop off his head; it’s what led Americans – the same people (or at least their President and corporation chiefs) who now urge the UK to remain part of the EU – to ditch tea in the Boston harbour and demand their independence from England.

To my American friends, I respectfully ask them to imagine who they would feel if taxes were imposed on them by, say, an administration in Mexico, even if every Senator and Congressman, as well as their President, was elected on the pledge to abolish the tax. How would you feel about that? Furthermore, if a police officer in some small town in Mexico demanded that you be extradited to ther for a crime you are alleged to have  committed, even if there is no prima facie evidence for this, and then  you had to spend months in jail in Mexico without any charge even be laid against you and were ultimately subject to the judicial process and punishment applicable in that country?

How would you feel if every unskilled Mexican – indeed the entire population of that country – could legally up sticks tomorrow, sail through US immigration and immediately be fully entitled to exactly the same employment, housing, health, education and welfare rights as American citizens? Oh, and the skilled people you DO want – from Canada, say – who speak the same language and whose forebears shed their blood and guts on the same side along with your pa and grandpa’s generation -were unable to gain work visas?

Get it? Good! Because that is exactly the situation the UK is in re the EU.

US leaders have always wanted Europe to be one conglomeration. It makes diplomacy SO much easier. “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”, more than one president has plaintively asked. Furthermore, they want the UK, as their most reliable partner, to be in there, to counter-balance those who – shall we put it politely? – have hsitorically been less reliable allies. Well, I’m sorry, but the US desire for convenience and tidiness is not a good enough reason to sacrifice your democracy and accountability. Or your individual liberty

Of course, corporate America is desperately hoping we will stay – big corporations in and outside the continent LOVE the EU. They are gagging for the proposed EU/US trade agreement – the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), as it will allow them the right – the RIGHT! – to buy off anything that is currently in public ownership and sue the government if they try to put a roadblock to it!

This week we have also the start of the full-frontal ‘project fear’ campaign by big business on both sides of the Atlantic as to the perils of the UK leaving. Very often they are the same groups – and very often the same individuals – who at the end of the last century warned that Britain would be become an economic backwater, denied inward investment, isolated and weakened, if we did not join full European and Monetary Union (EMU), and would be back, on our knees, begging to be allowed in, even on far worse terms.

Totally unashamed by their spectacular misjudgement and being completely ‘caught out’ by the reality, inverted from their own predictions, they are at it again. Corporations regard democracy as an unfortunate by-product of the free market. They work with any agencies and any party to suppress and castrate any movement that threatens their political interest. Through the IMF and World Bank, they first create the conditions that virtually ensure the failure of any attempt at social ownership of goods and services, then – as the price of rescuing the Socialist-led country – demand such painful cuts in public spending that said government is left exposed, compromised and humiliated that it resigns or is defeated, or gives in and throws their industries and social security systems and all those who rely on them to the mercy of the corporate Gods. This has happened over and over again in pretty much every part of the world, including the UK in 1976, in Africa, and South and Central America. It has been used to crucify generations of people in large part of Europe, notably Greece. See this superb interview with Yanis Varoufakis (starts 32.20).  His analysis of the situation in Greece and the EU will, surely, shatter any remaining illusions about this body. He compares it with a ‘power politics’ style 19th century force, crushing any country or people that challenges it. Did you know that, next month, ALL Greek businesses, from the lone fruit-seller to the largest corporation, will have to PRE-PAY all their taxes for a full year ahead? How, when they can’t even borrow from a bank the money equating to the profits they’ve yet to make?! Total, TOTAL madness. 

I could go on – and no doubt will as the referendum date is set as to whether we should ‘leave’ or ‘remain’.

It is possible Cameron will come back with a basketful of real reforms from his ‘renegotiation’, but I can’t imagine that he can achieve any agreement that, when it comes, will stop me voting to Leave with such vigour that I’ll break the voting-booth pencil. And, who know? Maybe millions more will do the same, partly inspired by the story of the Tampon Tax. Period.

About richardrudin

I'm a Senior Lecturer in journalism by 'trade'. My background is mainly in broadcasting, although I initially trained (and qualified!) as a newspaper journalist. I'm interested in what shapes people's views/attitudes, nature/wildlife, politics, reading, music (fairly varied but particular fondness from pop/rock/soul genres circa 1964-84 ish) and broadcasting history, as well as new technologies.
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