Saturday, January 23, 2016

The beneficence of Google

So - Google has offered £130m to the Chancellor as a token of the tax it owes.  This cosy deal has, rightly, been met with a great deal of scepticism.  An expert at the University of Essex, Prof. Prem Sikka, has estimated that the amount owed is in fact closer to £1.6bn.  But, if you are a huge corporation, it seems that you are taxed on the basis of what you decide to pay, rather than at a rate set by the state.

The response has generally been to say that the deal is absurd, and the amount preposterous.  £130m, people say, will make next to no difference to the deficit, and is a tiny drop in the ocean of government spending.  To pay tax at that level does not in any way reflect the presence that Google has in British society - where it makes 10% of its global revenues.  And yet - £130m is actually rather more than the size of the cut administered by the Chancellor to the Arts Council in 2010.  This was the horrific 30% moment, when the Arts Council's budget was slashed.

The effects of that cut have been immense.  For one thing, the Arts Council has cut administration back so far that it can barely administer grants any more.  The ability to take a genuine interest in the organisations receiving those grants, and to explore the work of those who have not yet received them, has dwindled.  But worse, the arts organisations themselves have been severely limited, and our cultural life has suffered.  I find the programming of the large organisations (except, oddly, the Royal Opera) to be much more conservative and bland than it was five years ago, and the possibility of developing new work or collaborating with communities outside "the mainstream" to be vanishing.  The emphasis in Arts Council application forms is more and more on financial viability and resilience, management and accounting processes - less and less on creativity, imagination, or even experience of making art.

In so far as this government has an arts policy, it is to encourage philanthropy - training arts organisations to solicit money from wealthy individuals.  Kind of like begging - but dressed up by consultants who tell you how to do it well, with champagne and canapés.  This is the American model - and in the States, where there is a well-developed tradition of charitable giving, many people regard such donations as being the equivalent of taxation.  Their donations afford them a tax break (the crucial element Osborne has missed out here), and they talk about their philanthropy as a form of tax that is better, because they are able to decide for themselves where it goes.

And that is the problem.  Everything which this government is doing is calculated to put even more power into the hands of the wealthy.  Why on earth should rich people decide what constitutes artistic quality, and have an exclusive power over the cultural life of a nation?  Isn't it obvious that the effect of this will be to concentrate what money is given into the high-profile large organisations with their development departments, and to push them to pander to the tastes of their funders, which tend to be more for "great art" presented in a traditional, often rather patriotic way, and less for anything that might dare to challenge.   If there were proper taxes - both on wealthier individuals, but more importantly on major corporations - then there would be adequate public funds to spend on things which contribute to the public good - things like health care, education and (yes) culture.  By which I mean an open, inclusive, dynamic and controversial culture. The sort of thing they had in the state-funded, forward-looking societies of Periclean Athens and Shakespearean London.  Or even modern Germany.

It doesn't even need very much.  A derisory offer once a year from Google would put us back where we were under Labour - which now seems like a bit of a golden age.

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