Sunday, 27 March 2016

Europe and the "Tampon Tax"

Scottish Independence Referendum

When I blogged about the Scottish Independence Referendum back in historical times (August 2014) I felt that, if I had had a vote, my Head would have voted “Yes” to Scottish Independence whilst my Heart would have voted “No”. I thought “Yes” because it might have one day led to Independence for Yorkshire and an end to the London/Westminister stranglehold of national perspective and the unfair allocation of resources. I thought “No” because I love Scotland as a tourist and as a student of literature, education, ideas and history. I like living in England. I like living in the UK. I like living in Great Britain (including Ireland), a collective of regional tribes. I think our system of government (local, regional and national) is badly in need of modernisation. But on balance I think the UK gets many things right most of the time. I of course didn’t have a vote about the Scottish Independence Referendum, so my opinion was theoretical but I was glad whatever the result that democracy was happening and that the winning “vote” would be accepted (at least for now.)

Forthcoming European Referendum

But I DO have a vote in the forthcoming In/Out European Union Referendum. So I want to make my mind up. I expect to be voting to STAY in Europe, although I am trying to read as much authoritative stuff as possible because, like with Scotland, some parts of my Head say “Yes, a Brexit might lead the way to a UK break up and the road to a Yorkshire parliament which makes more sense to me than a patronising pretend “Northern Powerhouse” morsel thrown from the half-time canapé tray of the Etonian London-centric playing fields. Another part of my Head also says “Yes, a Brexit might stop people trying to blame Brussels and the EU for administration and legislation caused by the House of Commons’s uselessness.” If we left the EU, no-one could put the blame on the EU any more…. For example….

Who invented the “Tampon Tax”? (Answer: Tory Government 1973, not the EU)

It was interesting seeing the way the press dealt with the “Tampon Tax” as if it had been imposed by Europe and “squashed” by George Osborne, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer. VAT was introduced in April 1973 by Edward Heath’s Conservative government (it replaced “Purchase Tax”). Female sanitary products were then defined as “non-essential.”  Every legal challenge to the tax since then has been by Labour MPs, though often the amendments were filibustered out of being debated. (Something Labour politicians do to Tory amendments too when Labour is in power, though challenges to the “Tampon Tax” have always been by Labour MPs when in opposition. I’ve searched Hansard for references to check this.)

Ted Heath's government in 1973 took us into Europe and replaced Purchase Tax with VAT

Who took us into Europe in the first place?

On 1st January 1973 Edward Heath’s Conservative government led us into the European Economic Community (the Common Market as it was then popularly called.) In April of that year, when VAT was introduced, the “Tampon Tax” was (clumsily) grouped with products that were treated the same way across Europe. Sadly, and to the discredit of all politicians from all parties, neither Conservative nor Labour governments ever had the gumption to check properly how easy it was to zero-rate specific products in each country. So Labour governments as well as Conservative governments have been responsible equally over time for not getting rid of the “Tampon Tax” (or, for example, the “Condom Tax” or “Razor Tax” or “Child-Safety Car Seat Tax” or any other VAT rate that people complain about) since the time the Conservatives introduced VAT in 1973.

Dawn Primarolo plus a few taxed non-essentials
2000 campaign led by The (now) Baronness Primarolo

The only creditable change came when, in 2000, the Labour government (following a campaign led by Dawn Primarolo, Labour MP for Bristol) cut the rate from standard VAT rate to 5%. What is interesting – and not widely understood – is that under the European regulations (and UK Law) the tax on tampons could have been zero-rated at any time. Basically the UK governments since 1973 have proved lazy when defining and re-defining “essential” and “non-essential” products so many new products (like Viagra, for example) are listed as “essential” and not subject to VAT. It is the discrepancies that make campaigners furious. But it is not, nor has it ever been, the fault of the EU what rates of VAT are attached to each product marketed in the UK.

The Daily Mail outlines government red tape problem

The Daily Mail, a Conservative newspaper, made my case clearly enough in October 2015:
Ministers last night avoided a defeat in the Commons by pledging to lobby the European Union to scrap the five per cent VAT on tampons of the UK. Frans Timmermans, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker's deputy, said this morning that it would be 'perfectly reasonable' for the tampon tax to go as part of David Cameron's renegotiation deal. But he added that Britain had never asked for the VAT to be removed from tampons in the past and said EU members too often blamed Brussels for red tape they created themselves. 'When it was decided before, Britain did not ask for an exemption whereas Ireland did and do have leverage to charge 0% VAT on certain items'
Frans Timmermans and Paula Sherriff
Paula Sherriff's success

Paula Sherriff, Dewsbury and Mirfield Labour MP, has been the most recent campaigner within parliament to get the zero rate applied to tampons. She cannily started courting Eurosceptic Tories who were all about to support an amendment to a bill tabled by her. When there was to be a major Tory rebellion to support a Labour amendment, suddenly George Osborne took an interest, as explained by The Daily Mail in the quotation above, and began to claim the “Tampon Tax” removal as a feature of his own policies.
Imagine if men had to use tampons, image by
Menstrual blood – an excellent little earner

I’m glad Osborne got the VAT deal, but he only did so because he wanted to keep Tory Eurosceptics at bay – and he – and all other Chancellors before him – could have done this much earlier. It’s fitting that a Tory Chancellor gets rid of VAT on tampons since it was a Tory Chancellor (not the EU) who introduced it in the first place in 1973. But the “Tampon Tax” has been – for both parties – a nice little earner for 40 years. I imagine all governments have decided it’s better to tax mopping up menstrual flow than to challenge Big Business or the Banks for money to support the country’s public services…. Apparently women lose 16 to 18 litres of blood in an average lifetime so there was no danger the revenue would ever dry up – but it will soon….

Treasury plans to replace the “Tampon Tax” with a “Cum Rag Tax”

I understand the Treasury has been discussing how to claw back the money lost through not taxing the absorption of menstrual blood. Saliva and sweat were considered but it was decided that men ought to pay extra VAT for a few years to offset women’s contributions to the nation’s welfare over the past forty years. The cabinet were thrilled to learn that as a result of a lifetime’s jizzing an average male releases 61 to 64 litres of semen into the world. Unlike women and their bodily fluid release, men are not restricted to particular times of the month but can generate income every day, sometimes several times a day, particularly in the younger years. The Treasury are intending to add (or raise) VAT on tissues, handkerchiefs, flannels, hand towels, sponges, T-shirts, boxers and socks (or anything else we men use to mop up.) The Select Committee looking into these proposals pointed out that, just as women won’t stop having periods, men won’t stop wanking. So the revenue stream will keep spurting forth.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Road to Stonehenge and Winchester

Avebury Stone Circle
Emily and I started our father-daughter Arthurian road trip in Devon (Plymouth) and travelled via Cornwall (Tintagel) and Somerset (Glastonbury) to arrive in Wiltshire and some Neolithic marvels. Avebury seemed to have at least three identifiable Stone Circles – one massive one and two smaller ones. What was remarkable was how intimate you could be with the stones, how up close and personal.
Much more controlled was the environment around Stonehenge with a shuttle bus to take us closer and then a guided walk which brought us pretty close indeed to the monumental ring. The absolute truths about the construction(s) of and the purpose(s) of Avebury and Stonehenge are unlikely to be discovered. What is certainly true is how astonishing they are in “real life” – very familiar from photographs, films and paintings and yet monstrously alien too. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that Merlin had constructed the stone circles in the time of King Arthur with the help of giants, hence the legitimate inclusion of Stonehenge in our Arthurian pilgimage. Writers from the past had a healthy approach to mixing history and legend (healthy in my opinion.)
Merlin and the Giant constructing Stonehenge

Winchester Great Hall
Our fifth county on the trip was Hampshire and a visit to the cathedral and the Great Hall where hangs the Round Table. Yes, the actual Round Table. King Arthur’s Round Table. Yes, the very one. Well, at least, the Round Table constructed in the 13th Century and repainted in Tudor times.... (If you look closely at the image of Arthur on the table, you can tell it looks like Henry VIII…!) Apart from the glory of the table, we enjoyed visiting Queen Eleanor’s Garden with its medieval layout and admired the impressive Hall itself.
Winchester Great Hall, Round Table, Cathedral and statues of monarchs past and present

A pair of philomythists
Did I learn anything new about the Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? Maybe not, but I certainly got a feeling for the geography of these famous sites. The trip ticked off a couple of items on my bucket list but looking back at it now, the thing I most valued was just spending time with a fellow philomythist (a lover of myths and legends.) Emily and I both agree with the author of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo:
“History has its truth, and so has legend…. history and legend have the same goal; to depict eternal man beneath fleeting man.”

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Road to Glastonbury

Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury Tor

Climbing Glastonbury Tor felt to me like a pilgrimage. On the one hand there is a belief that King Arthur and his knights are buried beneath the hill (admittedly, only one of several locations throughout the UK.) On the other hand I was walking with my eldest daughter and I was reminded of Mat Johnson’s words in the novel Loving Day:
“A man's daughter is his heart. Just with feet, walking out in the world.”
The 360° view from the tower of St Michael’s was wonderful and the sky was dramatically blue and cloudy. The hill has an ancient history and has been agricultural, military and religious, as well as Celtic, Saxon and Christian. It could be a giant sacred labyrinth. It could be the gateway to the underworld kingdom of the Lord of the Wild Hunt, Gwynn ap Nud, who haunts the hills around Glastonbury. Whatever it has ever been, it is a rewarding hill to climb.
Lord of the Wild Hunt, Gwynn ap Nud


The Celtic name of the Tor was Ynys Wydryn or “The Isle of Glass” and later Britons called it Yns Yr Afalon or “The Isle of Avalon.” Although it might seem fanciful to imagine the hill as an island, myths are often founded on historical fact and archaeology has revealed that the Tor was at one time a peninsula surrounded by the large River Brue. In Neolithic times, it was almost completely surrounded by water because of the river’s course. Even now, the low-lying damp ground often produces a mist which floods the plain beneath the Tor, so that the Tor rises from the white smoke, eerily, like a spooky island. This mirage is called Fata Morgana named after King Arthur’s half-sister, the sorceress Morgan le Fey.
Chalice Well in Glastonbury

Chalice Well

Glastonbury, whilst we were there, was hosting the 2015 Goddess Conference and passers-by were often dressed in robes, cloaks, tunics and ethereal fabrics. Even our lunch was hosted in a “slow food” café; the lunch was deliciously tasty but cooked and served by otherworldly beings in a Rivendell atmosphere. Visiting the Chalice Well was essential. Did Joseph of Aramathea wash the blood from the Holy Grail in the flowing waters there? Is the well head the source of the life force of Mother Earth? Is the Blood Spring only coloured the way it is because it travels through iron deposits in the hills above Glastonbury? Was there ever a more peaceful spot for contemplation?

Abbey Habit

And so to an afternoon at Glastonbury Abbey where monks apparently found the graves of Arthur and Guenevere in the Middle Ages. It was probably a tourist scam to increase the footfall (and hence the abbey coffers) but it was an atmospheric place to visit, not least because of the presence of the so-called Glastonbury Thorn – or a tree growing from a cutting from the original Thorn – that sprouted from where Joseph of Arimethea plunged his staff when visiting Glastonbury with the Holy Grail.
Glastonbury Abbey
From the swirl of myths, legends and tourist artefacts in Glastonbury (an evocative place to visit, that’s for sure) the road trip continued by leaving Somerset and heading to Wiltshire for what turned out to be the place that (for me) had the most impact on our trip…. Stonehenge!

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Road to Avalon

Tintagel tourist sites: King Arthur's Great Halls and the Old Post Office

King Arthur’s Hall and Tintagel Old Post Office

Emily and I travelled from Plymouth to Cornwall and the spectacular site of Tintagel. Before venturing to the famous Castle we visited the eccentric Old Post Office (with its wonky roof) and the even more eccentric Great Hall of King Arthur. The Tintagel Old Post Office, curated by the National Trust, was a great place for a refreshing cuppa. King Arthur’s Hall, though, was our first Arthurian site – the gathering place in the 1930s for the Order of the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table, founded by Frederick Thomas Glasscock (yes, Glasscock.) This group of benign gentlemen met from 1927 to “promote Christian ideals and Arthurian notions of medieval chivalry.” (If you click on the picture above, it should enlarge and you can read the ideals more closely, should you wish!)
The extraordinary Tintagel Castle
The castle itself – or series of forts and castles – is a remarkable English Heritage site. The changing views are breathtaking and the displays give a good account of all the different theories about why this site became important over many centuries. I first discovered the tales of King Arthur through Enid Blyton’s and Rosemary Sutcliff’s retellings of the legends but went on to devour just about everything I could through school and university, graduating from cartoon versions to European classics translated from Welsh and from the French. It’s hard to know why Arthurian Romance has played such a big part in my reading over the years – there’s something about the yearning for a better world and the poignancy of the failed enterprise that captured my imagination. I have blogged earlier about reading The Goshawk by TH White before graduating to The Once and Future King. Tintagel did not disappoint. It captures the beautiful romantic nature of the stories in its seaside clifftop setting, but its precarious and precipitous geography suggests it will inevitably come crashing down just as the Round Table did in the stories.
Launceston Castle in Cornwall

Launceston Castle

Leaving Cornwall and heading towards Somerset we called at Launceston Castle for a leg stretch and an exploration of the unusual keep which was the base for the Cornish Royalist defence of the county during the Civil War. Fantastic views from the battlements made the visit well worthwhile. Our next stop was to be the possible site for “Avalon” or the legendary isle where King Arthur was conveyed after his death at the hands of his son, Mordred. Although France and Sicily have also been proposed as Avalon locations – and Tintagel itself has island qualities – Glastonbury is where tradition places Avalon and that’s where Emily and I headed next.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Road to Fatherhood

Emily and Harriet
Road to Fatherhood

I have no doubt that Being A Father is the summit of my achievements. Helping create two new human beings and marvelling at their interactions with the universe are astonishing aspects of my existence. They are both part-Me; they are both part-Sally; they are both Entirely Themselves. They are The Same and they are Entirely Different. How could two people brought up by the same parents in the same environment have such wonderful variations? And yet also display some of the same senses of humour, some of the same interests and some of the same dreams? And so proud am I that they are both intelligent, creative, responsible, compassionate, empathetic, generous, intuitive, honest, courageous, wholehearted and spirited.

“Your father’s image is so hit in you….”(Leontes in The Winter's Tale)

Whereas Harriet has absorbed some of my sense of the absurd and delight in the oddities of the English Language, Emily has inherited my love of history, fantasy, myths and legends. So it was that father and eldest daughter embarked on an Arthurian road trip last summer. I pretended it was a birthday present for Emily but really it was a personal pilgrimage to places I had longed to visit myself. And Emily humoured me. (And the sun shone, the plans worked out and we had a wonderful trip - full of sights and sounds that still linger in my imagination.)
Welcome to Plymouth....

“And I unto the sea from whence I came….”(Montague in Henry VI Part Three)

We began in Plymouth – by the sea – where we hired a car and met up with one of Emily’s university friends at the remarkable gin distillery. I wandered over the Hoe, admired Smeaton’s Lighthouse and imagined Sir Francis Drake’s pre-Armada game of bowls. A fitting beginning for the Odyssey ahead. Next stop Tintagel.
Views of Plymouth