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PNR 277
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This item is taken from PN Review 60, Volume 14 Number 4, March - April 1988.

Only the most modest revenue will be raised. The imposition of VAT on books, which now appears virtually inevitable, must be considered by its advocates in the European Parliament as a matter of principle.

What principle could it be? First, there is a fiscal argument. Within the European community, no commodity of a member nation should be advantaged by tax exemptions which create trading disparities. But books, being in the languages of the individual countries and not yet homogenised in Eurospeak, are not traded across borders in fiscally significant quantities. The present British zero-rating of books, magazines and newspapers does not distort trade in books within the Community or give the British industry unnatural advantages. Publishing is different in kind from other manufacturing industries because the product is language-bound and therefore largely culture-bound.

Another argument is that it is impossible to discriminate between books as luxuries and books as educational matter. Some University courses on popular literture consider Barbara Cartland, Jeffrey Archer and the Sun as 'texts'. Some people read Dickens, Chaucer and Roland Barthes for pleasure. 'Don't tax reading' say the lapel buttons sported by publishers, editors, booksellers and librarians. There are bumper stickers, window cards and tens of thousands of petition slips in circulation. 'Don't tax reading' rather than 'Don't tax learning'. It's all or nothing: discrimination in the market place between 'luxury' and 'learning' is impossible.

Were VAT imposed on books, the effect would be similar to what we experienced when VAT was levied on other commodities: price inflation, contraction of the market in the medium term, and then a recovery, but with a difference: fewer individual bookshops would supply the public, rather fewer books would be published, the larger publishing conglomerates and bookselling chains would dominate even more than they already do, and library and institutional provision would continue to deteriorate. One is tempted to reflect that the substantial increase in Mr Luce's Arts and Libraries budget may have been agreed with precisely this contingency in mind: to alleviate the institutional adjustment to Community 'harmonisation' which is perceived (and even promoted) as inevitable.

The arguments we usually hear against taxing books are emotive ones. There are issues of deeper principle, contrary to the political priorities of the advocates, but those principles can be blurred. In practical terms, PNR subscribers, for instance, would pay more than £2.00 per annum for their six issues, and a £10.00 book would immediately cost £11.50. Educationalists, their resources already pinched by spending constraints, quake at the prospect. It is a budget cut under a different name.

Though I am a publisher and an editor, I feel uncomfortable defending principles. I acknowledge the arguments for VAT in certain areas. Why should the Exchequer not levy a tax on the vulgar press, as it does on cigarettes and other luxuries? Why should Princess Daisy not yield 15% if Stratford theatre tickets are taxed? And if one concedes that it is not unjust to tax these categories, how can one begin to discriminate between luxury and necessity in the printed word? Perhaps one could address the consumer rather than the producer and relieve educational institutions and bona fide students and scholars, freeing them to reclaim the tax which publishers now recoup when manufacture is complete. But clearly the administrative problems of discriminating by consumer would be insurmountable.

It should not be necessary to defend the principle of zero-rating on the printed word. It should be sufficient to demonstrate that, with the enormous disparities in resources between the regions and between institutions, with the severe controls on educational and library expenditure, and with the historical precedent of exemption, it is wrong to tax reading. In my view, precedent is the compelling argument against levying VAT on reading. Not only is the historical moment wrong; our history itself excludes the option.

'Harmonisation' within the Community: that is precisely the cause that should not triumph. We know more than we did when we joined about the Common Market: the supranational bureaucracy, the erosions of established cultural and commercial traditions within the member states, the inordinate influence of France and Germany in the allocation of resources and in the determination of policy. To submit our culture to the semi-literate and often hostile cultural bureaucracy of Luxembourg (whose procedings have been commented upon frequently in these pages) is the kind of abdication of fundamental sovereignty which is fiscally insignificant but - in terms of cultural independence - historically treacherous. Why should our government tolerate such impertinence? For it is impertinent for a Community bureaucracy to penalise an industry which is essentially domestic in Common Market terms, an industry through which a unique literary culture (along with much else) is disseminated. I am reluctant to believe that any British Government, without outside compulsion, would impose such a tax.

I doubt that the campaign against VAT on reading will succeed. But like Cuchulains fighting against the tide, I hope that PNR readers will complete the petition printed in this issue and direct it to the appropriate address and will encourage friends and colleagues to do the same. Our view - I speak tentatively where my fellow-contributors might speak more vehemently - is that there are principles involved which ought to go without saying, principles rooted at once in tradition and equity. The imposition of VAT on reading by this or any government would be a cynical attack on students, scholars, general readers, libraries and institutions of learning, and on the vulnerable domestic book trade. It would be an assault on new writers, since it would accelerate trends which already mar British publishing: concentration on high-price, low-run books for the specialist market and on 'best sellers' for the mass market, at the expense of creative publishing. The shelf-life of books would be curtailed; the stock-life of books would be shortened. When 'harmonisation' starts to look like homogenisation, emphatic dissonance should sound.

This item is taken from PN Review 60, Volume 14 Number 4, March - April 1988.

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