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Books

When ‘boycott’ isn’t quite the right word

22 November 2012

4:22 PM

22 November 2012

4:22 PM

Boycott Amazon was the message from Margaret Hodge MP in last weekend’s Observer. This comes in the wake of new revelations about just how little UK tax is paid by Amazon and other corporate giants Starbucks and Google. According to Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke, Amazon’s UK sales amounted to £3.9 billion last year, but it paid just 2.5 per cent tax on its estimated profits thanks to channelling sales through its Luxembourg HQ. There is a feeling that although it is legal, it isn’t fair that a company which has warehouses and employs 15,000 people in the UK doesn’t pay enough tax.

Some argue that it is down to HMRC to tighten these tax loopholes so as to prevent multi-national corporations from taking advantage of them. Others, frustrated with the impotence of the system, say we should flex our consumer power and bring about change with a boycott.

Boycott is a fascinating and revealing word, coined when the Irish ostracised Charles Cunningham Boycott in 1880. As part of the Irish Land League’s campaign for ‘the three Fs’ – fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale – they encouraged people to ostracise Charles Boycott, who had tried to evict farmers from the land for which he was agent. Soon the local shops wouldn’t serve him, his laundress wouldn’t do his washing, labourers refused to work his land, the postman refused to deliver his letters and people wouldn’t even greet him in the street. Boycott wrote of his plight to The Times and the English dutifully rallied round to raise funds and men to help him farm his crop, but after that he slunk back to England. A year later, Gladstone introduced ‘the three Fs’ in The Land Law Act of 1881 – success for Ireland, in part thanks to this successful boycott.

Everyone who boycotted Boycott hated the current system of land ownership. Irish land was almost entirely owned by 0.2 per cent of the population, the richest of whom tended to be absentee landlords, often living in England and employing an agent – like Boycott – to manage their land. Tenant farmers were vulnerable, prone to eviction. The system didn’t work for the people and so they used this tactic to change it.

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The problem with boycotting Amazon, is that, tax issues aside, most people love it. It provides a vast range of books, at an impossibly cheap price, available with just ‘one click’ from the comfort of an office, sofa or smartphone. The popularity of reading ebooks on Kindles has made Amazon’s consumer success all the more pronounced.

Telling people to boycott a service which they love, even if they feel a bit iffy about the morality of its tax situation, is a hard message to deliver. At worst, nobody pays the slightest bit of attention; at best, people give it a miss for a while only to resent the fact they’ve lost out on a good service and go back to Amazon with an occasional twinge of guilt.

It’s time to change the message. Instead of thinking about the negatives of Amazon, we should realise the positives of going to a bookshop.

Far more inspiring than this talk of boycotting Amazon is the story of Devon’s Crediton bookshop. This independent bookshop has just made the brave, mould-breaking decision to re-launch itself as a community-owned enterprise. Articulating the fact that a high street bookshop is in fact as much about serving its community as selling books, they want to hand the reigns over to the very community they serve. They want to emphasise the bookshop’s role as a community space, a place for literary activities and meeting other readers, rather than the bald transactional environment of e-retail.

I cannot think of a more positive, encouraging step for book-buying. A community-run bookshop is the ultimate combination of retail and society, a way of making local people feel bonded to, involved with, and responsible for their high street.

If only all the tax fuss about Amazon were to inspire us to realise the joy of switching off a screen and going into a bookshop, the pleasure of conversation which doesn’t use emoticons or hashtags, and the benefits of involvement in our own local communities rather than online forums, then it could be an impetus for great change.

Emily Rhodes works for an independent bookshop in London. She blogs at Emily Books and tweets @EmilyBooksBlog.

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