Can't pay, won't pay

It's right to protest against Glastonbury's headliners.

“If a rich man wants to help the poor," wrote Clement Attlee in 1920, "he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim." On 24 June, protesters will be trying to make this message audible above the din of the crowd at Glastonbury.

A "peaceful direct action" organised by Art Uncut - it's likely to involve a large, shiny banner - will be directed at the headliners U2 as they take the main stage on the Friday evening. With the slogan "Bono Pay Up", the campaign focuses on the tax arrangements of the globe-straddling stadium-rock band. When their native country's government had the temerity to impose a cap of €250,000 a year on tax exemption for artists' royalties, U2 switched their publishing base from Ireland to the Netherlands.

Should we be outraged? After all, Bono, U2's frontman, is known and revered the world over for his selfless devotion to the world's poor, his saintly demeanour outshining that of such religious leaders as the Pope, or Tony Blair, or - oh, all right, I'm being sarcastic. Through philanthropic "global brand" initiatives such as Product Red ("This should feel like hard commerce," the multimillionaire announced at a press conference in 2006), the be-sunglassed smugonaut has long been in the vanguard of capitalism's ideological shock troops, ramming down our throats the idea that the way to alleviate the ­effects of rampant and destructive profit-making lies in further rampant and destructive profit-making.

Not everyone shares this analysis. "U2 consistently do much much more than ANY other band in history to further the cause of the world's poorest," wrote one fan on the Bono Pay Up Facebook page. "This is a seriously misled, idiotic, self-indulgent venture, and selfish beyond belief." I disagree. The anger at Bono is justified: it is completely hypocritical to cast oneself as a great philanthropist while propping up a system in which the super-rich shop around the world for favourable (that is to say, soft) tax regimes.

This isn't just a question of individual morality; it has huge damaging effects. Bono Pay Up throws the spotlight on the developing world. As John Christensen, director of the Tax Justice Network, tells me, tax avoidance is a "catastrophic" problem for the developing world, which loses roughly $160bn each year this way, more than the global aid budget. "It is leading to a situation where countries cannot escape their debt problem. Tax really is the heart of a functional modern economy and a modern state."

Bono is an easy (and fun) target, but that shouldn't obscure Britain's leading role in perpetuating the situation. As Nicholas Shaxson's recent book Treasure Islands showed, the City of London lies at the heart of a global network of satellite tax havens, many of them remnants of the British empire. "People are very unaware of this issue by and large," Christensen says. "I think this protest will potentially make people aware that Britain, far from being a major aid donor to developing countries and being enormously helpful to them, is part of a problem that is of far greater significance."

Ultimately it's you, as well as Bono, that Art Uncut is targeting. The group's founder and co-organiser Philip Goff explains that the aim is to bring about "a culture shift, where people think ethically, rather than just about minimising their tax bill - thinking about what we owe to the country that provides our health service and our education; what's our fair share." Good luck to them. l

On 25 June, Art Uncut will be holding a night of music, comedy and short talks at the Bull and Gate, 389 Kentish Town Road, London NW5. For more details visit:

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia