Tax break, big break

Tax break, big break
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First Published: Fri, Nov 21 2008. 10 41 PM IST

Spy man: Author Ian Fleming.
Spy man: Author Ian Fleming.
Updated: Fri, Nov 21 2008. 10 41 PM IST
How does Aravind Adiga owe his celebrity status to the West Indian slave trade and a loophole in the UK tax law?
This month’s story of tax-break-meets-White-Tiger begins in the country of Guyana. Or to be more precise, the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, which makes it sound a little like a housing colony in Wadala, Mumbai.
During the early 19th century on the coast of South America, the Congress of Vienna had sliced up the land among the larger colonial powers, giving the British a sliver called Guyana. Sugar plantations thrived, running mostly on the back of slave labour. Business boomed and the British living in Guyana soon came to be in need of goods from home.
Spy man: Author Ian Fleming.
And most eager to oblige were John Campbell and Co. of Glasgow, Scotland, who shipped across herring and clothing to the plantations in return for healthy profits. So much so that clan Campbell soon bought the plantations for themselves.
The Campbells made wise investments and generations later, in 1934, when young Jack “Jock” Middleton Campbell landed in Guyana to join the family business, the family controlled 35% or so of all economic activity in the colony.
Of course, by then the firm was no longer known as John Campbell and Co. and had undergone many mergers and acquisitions. It became Curtis, Campbell and Co. for a while and then it merged with John McConnell and Co. to finally adopt, in 1900, the name we probably now recognize it by. But more on that later.
Things began to change when young Jock came on the scene. A humanist with a deep sense of guilt about his company’s murky past, he began to institute changes and diversify businesses. It was thus, while looking for new business opportunities, that after a round of golf at a Caribbean course, Campbell was asked for assistance by Ian Fleming, he of that spy novel business.
Fleming was dying from too much drink and smoke and wanted to make sure his family continued to make money from his books after his death. Campbell promised to oblige.
And then, and human history is filled with such examples, Campbell was inspired while in the bath. He called up his tax accountant, who discovered a loophole in the UK Finance Act. Apparently the loophole allowed companies to buy out copyright from an author—after paying them a lump sum with taxpayers’ money—and then profit off the royalties.
It was a sweet deal and Campbell’s company, after almost two centuries of history and now known as Booker McConnell Ltd, decided to open up an author’s division to cash in on this opportunity first with Fleming’s books and then with works by Agatha Christie and Harold Pinter, among others.
The company made plenty of money; and in 1969, and perhaps partly due to Campbell’s voracious reading habit and need to give back to society, decided to set up the Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction for writers from the Commonwealth. It initially had a prize of £21,000 (around Rs15.3 lakh now).
Almost 40 years later, Aravind Adiga’s tale of a poor servant in modern day India won him the Man Booker Prize, as it is known today.
Write to Sidin at whatareyousaying@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Nov 21 2008. 10 41 PM IST