In Focus: Protest Group UK Uncut

UK Uncut protest in Brighton, 2010. Photo: Dominic Alves / Flickr

We’re making a space for people to come in and answer the policy questions,” says Tim Matthews, when I suggest that UK Uncut is limited by being only a pressure group. Tim works with UK Uncut taking turns to look after the website, organising more actions and dealing with the press. Today it is his turn to deal with me.

UK Uncut made headlines last October when a group of activists occupied a Vodafone shop on Oxford Street, following the Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review. Armed only with a Twitter hashtag and a sense of outrage, they occupied the retail store and had it shut down. In the weeks that followed and against the backdrop of student protests, UK Uncut demonstrations sprang up across Britain.

Protesters occupied Vodafone, Topshop stores and banks with one message: “Pay your taxes”. Following the news that council spending cuts would mean the closure of libraries, protesters even brought their children with them to run libraries from within banks.

After months of coalition politicians appearing on television and radio to pay deference to the “huge deficit we have inherited”, UK Uncut kept popping up with their own retort to these platitudes: “Pay your taxes”.

Tax Dodgers

UK Uncut have reframed the argument so that it isn’t about how much to cut – it’s about how necessary the cuts are. Their proposed solution is to stop tax evasion and stop bankers’ bonuses.

As the government shaves billions off its departmental budgets, UK Uncut claims that “Rich corporations and individuals collectively get away with dodging £95bn every single year. We are told that there is no alternative to drastic cuts to public services but collecting the tax dodged by the super-rich would make the vast majority of the government’s spending cuts unnecessary.”

Protest outside the Daily Mail Offices. Photo: Amy Tsang

A Bad Reputation

Policing of protests has become stricter following the violence at the student fees protest at Millbank last year. As the months have worn on, other peaceful protests have been marred by pockets of violence and those involved in UK Uncut actions have become more wary.

They have been especially careful since the TUC march, when ‘black bloc’ protesters vandalised buildings. In the media coverage that followed the event, much of the focus was on the violent actions and UK Uncut could not avoid being tarred with the same brush.

Occupation And Arrest

The UK Uncut protesters had organised a protest at Fortnum and Mason. The store is owned by Whittington Investments, who also own Associated British Food who have, according to UK Uncut, avoided £40 million of taxes. Although there is no evidence of vandalism or violence within Fortnum and Mason, 138 protesters were arrested. Videos shot by Green and Black Cross legal observers show police officers telling the peaceful protesters which way to exit and promising them that they will not be arrested. When they leave, however, they find themselves lined up to be taken into custody.

Afterwards, UK Uncut tried to disassociate themselves from the ‘black bloc’, but they didn’t help themselves when one of their representatives appeared on Newsnight and refused to condemn the violence.

Police guard Topshop during the TUC march. Photo: Weldon Kennedy / Flickr

When I ask Tim about the Fortnum and Mason occupation, he says he was outside and wasn’t arrested.

They couldn’t kettle people in the shop. They had to try a different tactic. And on the day, they were desperate to arrest people.”Of those who were arrested, some were kept up to 20 hours and in their reports, they say their clothes and telephones were taken away from them.”

They were charged with aggressive trespass and their hearings will be coming up this month. Tim believes it was political policing.

“It was completely over the top and unnecessary. There’s no reason to arrest people like that especially when they were told they were able to leave. One of them was a fifteen year old.”

A Class Issue?

Policing of protests has become a contentious matter recently, but I asked Tim whether he thought misjudged action on UK Uncut’s part also contributed to negative reports. After all, Fortnum and Mason is owned by a charity. He was resilient. “It’s all very well donating to charity, but if you’re only able to do that because you’re avoiding tax, then is that right? We don’t have that option. It’s not a very democratic process. We should all be equal by law.”

I also pointed out that Fortnum and Mason is associated with the wealthier classes. UK Uncut have also targeted Philip Green who was employed to help the government with the spending review. Was he concerned that UK Uncut might appear to be party political or starting a class war?

Crowds of protesters and police gather outside Fortnum and Mason during the TUC rally. Photo: Dominic Alves / Flickr

“I think it’s important to get our facts right and do our research. Philip Green was employed for the spending review. It’s clear cronyism. The fact of the matter is they have a revolving door where people go from industry to government. Our primary issue is tax avoidance, but we should be bailing out NHS. We’re not party political because they’re also things that New Labour would have cut. If Labour had been part of the coalition, they may not have cut as fast, but certainly they would have supported cuts. Who voted for these cuts? 36% of the public voted for the Conservatives. Do they have a mandate to make these spending cuts?”

It seems the issue here is not just cronyism or even just tax avoidance. UK Uncut is struggling against what they see as the hypocrisy of moneyed corporations and politicians, particularly those that tell the public, “We’re all in this together.”

No Daily Mail fans here. Photo: Amy Tsang

Daily Mail Protest

The week before speaking to Tim, I attended a UK Uncut protest outside the Daily Mail newspaper’s offices. Northcliffe House has security on the door permanently and there were policemen lining Derry Road in Kensington by the time the protesters had arrived, so there wasn’t the usual UK Uncut style sit in. Instead a barrier had been erected to pen the protesters onto the other side of the street.

The Daily Mail and columnists like Richard Littlejohn have a reputation for taking a hard line against benefit claimants and immigration. UK Uncut organisers believe that the Daily Mail chairman, Viscount Rothermere, is non-domicile. They had organised this demonstration to protest against the hypocrisy of a newspaper railing against these issues even though their own chairperson is arguably guilty of ‘scrounging’ off the state by evading tax.

It was a relatively small group. One man held a placard saying, “In memory of Ian Tomlinson”. Two young women had t-shirts saying, “I ♥ Immigrants”. The protesters stayed on Derry Road for a couple of hours, talking into a megaphone about why they consider the Daily Mail to be despicable. They got no response.

Realising that nobody would respond if they remained there, the group took themselves round to the back entrance, trailed by the police. They stood outside the doors and chanted, “Daily Mail, Nasty Scum!” Eventually, a man came out, grinned at them and returned inside again.

UK Uncut Impact

Public sector cuts will be severe and none of the corporations that UK Uncut have targeted –  Boots, Vodafone, Topshop and various supermarkets, have changed their tax arrangements in response to UK Uncut’s demands. But Tim points out to me that the Treasury Select Committee have put together a professional review of corporate tax avoidance.

A poster at the Papered Parlour event. Photo: Amy Tsang

When I saw Tim speak at Papered Parlour, an event bringing together craft groups and activists, many of the activists, Tim included, seem to struggle for an answer to the question: “What is your vision of the world?”

I put it to Tim that while UK Uncut was doing well at drawing attention to the problems, they would do better to offer more alternatives, even engage directly with politicians. I also suggested that it might be better if their representatives do not go on Newsnight and refuse to condemn the violence. He smiled wryly and said, “Are you going to ask me to condemn the violence?” I took that as a no.

He said firmly, “I think people have it quite clearly in their minds what UK Uncut do.”