The Establishment is scared of the power of this new movement

First-person account from a nonviolent UK Uncut protester held in a police cell for 19 hours.

I was proud to march "for the alternative" last Saturday. However, since the Iraq war protest, I know that no march, no matter how huge, is enough to change policy. And that's why I left the main demo to join the UK Uncut action.

I wanted to be part of something more creative and less easy to ignore. I'd never been on a UK Uncut action before, but was inspired by what I'd heard. Not just because their demos are peaceful and fun; not just because they appeal to a universal sense of fairness and morality. I've also admired the way they secure the media's attention, so that even the Daily Mail now questions why huge businesses are allowed to avoid tax when we're told there isn't enough money for vital public services.

I can now vouch for the fact that UK Uncut actions are friendly and empowering. No one individual takes charge. Everyone is trusted with mutual responsibility. This in itself feels radical, given our over-regulated, risk-averse culture.

People unfurled banners, chanted, read and listened to poetry while customers continued shopping. We discussed how Fortnum & Mason's owner, Wittington Investments, is alleged to have avoided paying £10m a year in taxes – enough to pay for 500 nurses. When a container of sweets was accidentally knocked down, people tidied it up. We all made group decisions through consensus. We were in a shop, but no longer passive consumers.

The protest ended in circumstances that the Metropolitan Police will no doubt be forced to explain and justify. My friend needed the toilet, but at the door riot police stopped us, supposedly because it wasn't "safe" outside – even though there were mothers with prams walking past. When finally we were allowed to leave, it was into a "kettle" of police in riot gear, who accused us of thousands of pounds' worth of criminal damage (an accusation dropped once we were inside police cells). We were handcuffed and led away.

At the station, my outer clothes were removed, and so was my watch. I was put into an ugly 8ft by 10ft cell lit by a putrid yellow light, with no windows, the words "God Have Mercy" desperately scratched over the door. I am extremely short-sighted, but was not allowed to wear my glasses in case I used them to damage the cell or harm myself. Fingerprints, DNA and photographs were taken.

The cell was claustrophobically ugly. As the hours ticked by, the walls started to close in. I found myself acting out the prison clichés of doing stretches and press-ups to break the monotony and feel less physically trapped. When I was taken out for a wash, I relished seeing daylight through a distant window. No one could say how long I'd be there – just that they had the right to keep us for up to 36 hours and, with an extension, even longer.

At times I could faintly hear the voices of my friend and other protesters speaking to police officers. Someone started drumming a tattoo on the wall. I began singing, and found that the cell acoustics were fantastic. Spirituals and folk songs seemed most appropriate, and I hoped that other prisoners would hear me and feel less alone.

I was bailed 19 hours after being arrested. I was charged with aggravated trespass, as were 137 others. As one civil liberties lawyer has stated, it is unprecedented to arrest so many people for simply protesting peacefully in a building.

But I don't regret participating. Thanks to UK Uncut, things are already changing. Last Tuesday, a public inquiry into corporate tax avoidance was launched, and the government is even discussing a blanket anti-avoidance law.

Perhaps that's why they were so heavy-handed with us. The Establishment is scared of the power of this new, popular movement. Perhaps it all comes down to that Gandhi adage: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win."

Kirsten Downer is a freelance journalist and first-time UK Uncut protester.

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.