Sammy Wilson

It’s rare that I’ll have anything very nice to say about the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, our current Northern Ireland Finance Minister. Despite a friend telling me when we were both students that Sammy always dined in the restaurant he worked in and was a gentleman, I don’t think really we’d get on. It’s the Clarkson-esque flippant ignorance of peer-reviewed science. The history of controversies from being caught streaking on holiday to the much less amusing sectarian slurs. The silly statements about wanting nuclear waste dumped in NI. And of course, not seeing the benefit of renewable energy when even the CBI realise its potential to create thousands upon thousands of jobs.

But I’m a great believer in that when someone is doing something right, it’s important that you point it out…especially if you really didn’t expect it.

Plans are afoot for a temporary ‘Large Store Rates Levy’ – increasing rates bills for large supermarkets – in order to fund a reduction in rates bills for small businesses. The average increase in rates for large retailers is said to be around £85,000 a year. Sounds sensible, right?

The response of Tesco (a company that made a record £3.6bn in profit this year) was to threaten to cut a 3-year £100m, 1500-job investment programme if the tax was introduced.

Wilson then stood up in the Assembly chamber and said that Tesco were ‘Pathetic.’ He stated that they were ‘bluffing, bullying’ and that they ‘wouldn’t get away with it.’ He noted that over a 20-year period, this temporary tax would equate to a fraction of one percent of Tesco’s profits. To seriously suggest that an investment programme – which Tesco will obviously make profit from, otherwise they wouldn’t do it – is in danger because of a simple rates hike is silly.

Now, bear in mind, that is further and more aggressive than John Swinney or Alex Salmond were willing to go during their own supermarket spat. Given the DUP’s record as a populist, anti-regulation, free market party, this is to be welcomed.

And make no mistake about it, Sammy is 100% correct to stand up to Tesco. They’re not some cuddly, convenient place where you go to get your food. What they are doing is simply economic blackmail. Tesco are not a net creator of jobs, and they harm local shops, farmers, low-income earners, workers and animals.

And of course Sammy is then suddenly deluged by predictable political opponents. All the shady (and somewhat nascent) supporters of Northern Ireland big business come out of the woodworks to condemn him as harming jobs. From the same hypocrites who would see NI’s corporation tax rate cut (leading to a £300m hit to public service jobs) come the accusations of him being a job-killer, an economy-wrecker.

Where’s our message of support for Sammy Wilson? Would he welcome it? Who knows? But it’d be dishonest of us to sit down and let him take the heat when we agree with him wholeheartedly.

Sammy might even find himself quietly concurring with Tony Benn, who wrote in his 1963-67 diaries:

“As a minister, I experienced the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a (democratically elected) government. Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes is minuscule.”

Salmond’s statement, and now Wilson’s statement, signifies that the climate is changing. Due to one thing or another – from UK Uncut to Occupy movements to the Robin Hood Tax – the air is starting to become clear to allow criticism of the big business that seeks to unduly influence our democracy.

This is particularly relevant in Northern Ireland. Multinational influence in this post-conflict society is relatively recent. Multinational corporations largely stayed away for the duration of the troubles, and so their ending brought a sudden influx which makes their influence more stark. The locally owned shops of my generation’s childhood – Supervalu, Safeway, Woolworths – have given way to a huge influx of out-of-town Tescos and Asda (read: Walmart). It’s important that we realise the huge damage big supermarkets do to our society.

Flick Sammy an email and tell him he’s right – this time.