When ‘boycott’ isn’t quite the right word

22 November 2012

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.


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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  • Hettie

    On the tax theme and books this is an extract from the very good Inaugural speech Jeanette Winterson gave to the Reading Agency. Citing Andrew Carnegie’s funding of libraries versus the tax activities of Amazon etc. “Libraries cost about 1 billion a year to run right now. Make it two billion and charge Google, Amazon and Starbucks all that back tax on their profits here. Of if they want to go on paying fancy lawyers to avoid their moral duties, then perhaps those companies could do an Andrew Carnegie and build us new kinds of libraries for a new kind of future in a fairer and better world.” I prefer the world Andrew Carnegie cared about creating, not the one being offered by Amazon etc.

  • symphara

    I really like Amazon and I think that low prices come from their astute tax arrangements.

    Amazon paying little corporation tax means that we, their customers, pay less tax. Which is great since I feel we’re taxed to the hilt.

    Far from boycotting them, the whole affair only made me despise Labour more, and in particular the ghastly Hodge.

  • Mike T

    I’m with ‘git’ guy. Allowing companies to set up structures where one subsidiary conveniently has to pay another (located in a tax haven) billions of pounds to license the company’s brand name and so reduce the overall taxable profit is just silly pandering.

    • Mike, Dalian

      Then our illustrious politicians should change the rules. They have that power, after all …

  • A Common Reader

    I have a wonderful bookshop near me (Muchado at Alfriston) and call in occasionally to receive excellent service and a pleasant environment. But like most people, I have to consider cost for the bulk of my reading and Amazon is just too tempting when the savings on a book are in the region of 50% or more.

    • Emily Rhodes

      I see your point, but one of the big problems with Amazon is that the colossal discounts it offers are unsustainable for publishers – hence Random House and Penguin joining forces to be able to square up to Amazon together. Amazon’s saddest achievement is that some people have become so used to its low prices that many people now undervalue books and believe that they’re simply not worth the £8.99 cover price – strange when you think that’s hours, possibly days of entertainment for less than the price of a cinema ticket.

      • Mr Grumpy

        If you can’t get people to boycott Amazon because of their tax avoidance antics, they’re hardly likely to be impressed by a call to boycott them in solidarity with the poor squeezed megapublishers. The unsustainability of Amazon’s discounts is not the customer’s problem.

      • Rahul Kamath

        Maybe I’m too much of a free market economist here but asking consumers to pay more to sustain someone’s business is just daft. Consumers make decisions on value democratically. It’s not up to anyone to tell them that they “undervalue” something. That said I do think that the publishers have mismanaged their businesses. And book writing/ making isn’t a great business to start off with.

  • john cronin

    The ghastly b**** Margaret Hodge was doing exactly the same with her family company. The hypocricy of the Labour Party bourgy lefties never ceases to astonish.

  • Troika21

    A good idea would be to block Amazons website for a month, it would drive people into bookshops and should do enough damage to its revenue to be equivalent to unpaid tax.

    I’d kind of like to see that with every company that uses these schemes to avoid paying tax; a Minister for Fiscal Rectitude chastising companies in TV ads and asking consumers to switch to better suppliers.

    And whilst I’m at it, I want a pony and a big house, too.

  • jase

    just change the loop holes. thick gits

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