An incestuous relationship
Friday 5th February 2016
SOLOMON HUGHES reveals the hidden personal and political ties between present and former government officials and the management of the company that got away with paying next to no tax
Google has close links to the government that waived through their tax deal — advisers flit between the main parties and Google HQ. If it was happening in a developing world country it would be called “crony capitalism.”
Having seen the way leading politicians and Google rub up against each other, I can report more bad news.
Google love-bombing our rulers doesn’t just discourage proper taxation, it also encourages some of the other crappy, pro-corporate tendencies in our politics.
There’s been a lot of attention to Google’s close relations with government after Osborne announced his Google-tax “sweetheart deal.” Google paid £130 million tax for the past 10 years of commercial activity in Britain.
Critics talk of “mates’ rates,” arguing Google’s offshore activity hid tax liabilities nearly 10 times that amount.
These close relations include Google boss Eric Schmidt being a member of David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group. Rachel Whetstone, a godmother to Cameron’s late son Ivan, was until recently Google’s head of communications. She is married to Steve Hilton, the prime minister’s former head of policy.
In the wake of the Google tax scandal, Hilton himself offered words from — or at least from near — the horse’s mouth. Hilton told Radio 4: “There is a growing sense that companies that are so big and so dominant — not just in the marketplace but in the way they relate to governments, their lobbying efforts and so on — that they really are above the law.”
Google’s lobbying efforts include hiring ex-special advisers (known as spads).
Naomi Gummer was Jeremy Hunt’s spad when he was culture secretary — a brief including media and the Web.
Now she is a Google “public policy” officer. She comes from a Tory-connected family — her uncle, John Selwyn Gummer, was one of Thatcher’s ministers. Her dad is both a leading lobbyist and head of Cameron’s Witney Conservative Party. Cameron was a guest at her wedding.
Theo Bertram was an adviser to both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Now he is in charge of Google strategy in Europe. Visit his Twitter page and you’ll find Bertram grumbling about Corbyn: “Google’s new Labour agent doesn’t like Corbyn” is one of those colour-me-unsurprised moments.
For good measure Nick Clegg’s former spad Verity Harding is another Google policy adviser. Google has bought a top spad from each party.
Google has had many private meetings with ministers, aided no doubt by these ex-spads. But in 2013 it also went semi-public with meetings at the party conferences.
Gummer hosted Google’s Tory conference breakfast meeting. It was only open to attendees approved in advance, but I managed to stumble past the guest list to enjoy Google’s closed breakfast confab. Ex-Blair boy Bertram was the main man at the Labour event.
Both Gummer and Bertram were issued with “Google glasses.” Bertram faithfully wore them throughout his meeting, whereas Gummer merely fiddled with hers, embarrassedly. Gummer also made her notes in red biro in a notebook rather than on a Google Nexus, but otherwise she spouted the kind of waffle you expect from a tech firm. She told us Britain needs “Lovey-boffs — not just loveys or boffins but a mix of the two” for the high-tech future.
Meetings like this are mostly “soft diplomacy,” held to create warm feelings about the firm among politicians rather than directly address an issue. All speakers at both meetings carefully avoided mentioning tax. Instead of talking about tax, the Google atmosphere seemed to encourage those MPs happy to appear on Google’s stage — so already not the best — to exaggerate their existing flaws.
Windsor MP Adam Afriye, a prominent Tory backbencher seen as a “tech” expert was top speaker at Google’s Tory event. He told us that “I think digital can be the end of socialism.” As an example of the digital destruction of socialism Afriye told us he imagined an “app” on people’s phones called “keep me well” offering health advice.
People could ask their phones what to do if they felt poorly. Afriye’s imaginary app could recommend they go and “wait for ages in a casualty” at a local hospital. But it could also “say there is a private GP here” who could help instead.
So Google gave a platform for a Tory MP to argue the internet is going to destroy socialism because people’s mobile phones will tell them to go to a private doctor instead of the NHS.
The obvious flaw in this digital-NHS-privatisation plan is most of us don’t go to private doctors because we can’t afford them and are happy with the NHS — not because a mobile phone didn’t tell us to go private.
It’s a barmy argument, but one given a platform by Google.
At Labour’s Google meeting Stella Creasy, then a shadow minister, spoke alongside Google’s Bertram. She is usually one of the better members of the Progress wing of the Labour Party, but the Google atmosphere seemed to bring out her most techno-Blairite tendencies.
Instead of talking about the need to tax or regulate big firms like Google, Creasy claimed digital meant “we are living in an enterprise economy” thanks to low start-up costs of tech-y firms.
A breathless Creasy implied internet “empowerment” made old-fashioned socialism redundant. She said thanks to the ease of launching digital business “we are living through a Marxist revolution, where increasingly the means of production are in the hands of the workers,” ignoring the fact that server banks, cabling, copyrighted technology, the lawyers protecting it, and ultimately the electricity power plants and computer factories behind the internet are all owned by big corporations like Google.
If anything, the tech firms are like 19th-century businesses, rushing to monopoly and exploiting workers.
The last Labour government was drawn into this “thin air” digital economy boosterism and quickly wasted billions on IT programmes.
Again, the Google meeting turned to the NHS. Bertram argued the “unrisky” NHS had to be encouraged towards more “risky” IT-led solutions because “technology by its nature is really quite risky,” so it was the only thing to do.
So this is the other side of playing Google’s game. Not only do they get to avoid taxes, they also encourage the worst in our politicians, providing the environment for Tory MPs to recommend NHS privatisation, Labour politicians to go all techno-utopian and ex-spads to recommend the NHS needs more “risky” IT.