It is a grey Saturday on London’s Oxford Street, and there’s a crowd gathered around Vodafone. But the 50 people sitting cross-legged outside the shop are not after the latest hi-tech handset. They are here to tell the world how the phone company has legally avoided paying £6bn in tax by cutting a deal with Revenue and Customs. (To put that in perspective, the planned cuts to the UK’s welfare budget come to £7bn.) It’s a popular message, and plenty of shoppers stop and listen; some even join in the chanting.
The protesters are from a group called UK Uncut, which burst onto our high streets in late October 2010. Its model — peaceful direct action highlighting a tangible alternative to cuts; namely, uncollected tax bills — has struck a nerve. After all, a 2009 YouGov poll found that 77 per cent of us would like the government to do everything in its power to limit the estimated £25bn lost each year to tax avoidance.
Yet despite all the noise — and column inches — the group has attracted, surprisingly little is known about it. Many of its leaders prefer to use false names when dealing with the press, and they are keen to stress that there is no ‘central command’.
Nevertheless, it is possible to pinpoint where UK Uncut began: the Nag’s Head pub in Islington, north London. Twelve friends — some of them recent Oxford graduates, all of them in their twenties, and many with experience of activism — had gone for a drink after the coalition’s ‘austerity’ spending review was announced in October. They’d read a piece by Richard Brooks in Private Eye on Vodafone’s tax avoidance, explaining how Revenue and Customs (backed by Gordon Brown’s Labour government) had taken the company to court to recover £6bn in unpaid tax. After a lengthy legal fight, HMRC won — only for George Osborne’s Treasury to let Vodafone off the hook.
The twelve graduates decided that something had to done — and they had do it themselves. Or as Ben, one of the original group, puts it: “We just couldn’t bear the thought of going to marches and listening to boring speakers for the next five years.”
They posted a simple message on Twitter: “This is the official Twitter account for tomorrow’s direct action in London. Meet 9:30AM at the Ritz — look for the orange umbrella #UKuncut”. The word started to spread, helped on by a retweet from Independent columnist Johann Hari. Just a week later, on Wednesday 27 October, 70 activists met. Minutes later, they had closed down Vodafone’s flagship store. UK Uncut was born.
“I don’t think anyone really had a plan,” says Lucy, one of the original group, when I met her at her house recently. “As a protester, you’re used to people thinking you’re a massive inconvenience. But there was such a positive response on that Wednesday that we called a big day of action for the following Saturday.”
To the pleased surprise of the organisers, on that day, Vodafone stores were closed from Bristol to York. Subsequent protests expanded their focus to Topshop — its proprietor Philip Green, now an adviser to the Tories, has legally avoided £285m in tax by putting his company in the name of his wife, who is a resident of Monaco.
The group swiftly set up a website, where anyone can post details of ‘actions’. Groups and individuals use this — alongside Facebook and Twitter — to keep others informed. Actions range from sit-ins at high street stores to remarkable one-off protests. In Bury St Edmunds, “Alex and his mum” lay down in the entrance to Vodafone and shut it down, while a woman in Wandsworth held up several Arcadia stores by refusing to pay VAT because she didn’t trust the group to pass it on to Revenue and Customs.
Clearly, the internet and social media have enabled the movement’s strikingly decentralised, non-hierarchical structure. Anyone can get involved at any time, simply by organising a sit-in and posting the details online. Professor Carlo Ruzza, a political sociologist at Leicester University, notes a general trend. “New technologies mean that you don’t need very strong hierarchies any more, because you can mobilise people in other ways,” he says. “In Britain, there is a moral investment in clean politics. In principle, people want to identify with the state and feel betrayed by the political system when they cannot.”
A sense of injustice certainly comes across at the protests. Campaign literature draws direct links between the tax legally avoided by big businesses and cuts to public spending. A ‘sports day’ at Topshop’s flagship store in Oxford Circus highlighted cuts to school sports — although the planned relay races and mass star jumps were not possible due to heavy police presence. A silent ‘read-in’ at Vodafone the same day drew attention to cuts to library budgets. “These days, the most important political cleavage is the elite versus the people,” says Ruzza. “You have the fat cats set against people who live a normal life.”
The London activists have now swelled from 12 to more than 30. They see themselves as just one group among the many up and down the country, albeit one that takes it in turns to answer the phone to media, reply to emails, and update the website. Their only real impact on other UK Uncut groups is to decide national days of action, for the sake of greater impact and cohesion. And they still remain largely anonymous to keep the focus firmly on their actions, rather than their personalities. “Any fragment that the media could pin a leadership on is just so unhelpful,” Lucy explains.
Anna Mason, a 15-year-old who organises Uncut events in Liverpool while studying for her GCSEs, is enthusiastic about this fluidity. “You just jump in. You don’t even need any patience because you can organise an event so quickly. The fact that there is no official membership makes it so accessible.”
“It is sustainable because it’s not a fixed entity,” says Lucy. “But we need to develop more of a process.” They have already held a ‘Twitter debrief’ where people across the country shared ideas and feedback by tweeting their thoughts on what had gone right or wrong, and suggested other potential targets. The London group is also keen to make links with activists in other regions, so that they too can talk to the media.
The movement has already made significant achievements. Tax justice is on the agenda in a way that was inconceivable six months ago, although it is important not to get carried away. Ruzza points out that despite the geographic spread, the numbers attending each protest are relatively small.
Lucy is very clear about the role the group plays. “We’ve been great, but we’re not the anti-cuts movement and don’t pretend to be. We play a very small and specific role in raising this issue and offering a clear alternative. The beauty is the rapid response: stuff can happen in four days.”
While I am at Lucy’s house, Ben checks the UK Uncut account on his iPhone and shows us a photo that a stranger has sent in. It is a mock-up of a Vodafone advert, detailing its tax avoidance, which has been pasted on top of an advert on the Tube. “You feel like because you have the log-in for the Twitter account and the email account, you have ownership of this thing, but you really don’t,” he says. He is right, it belongs to us all — as do those missing tax payments.