Spontaneous social action organised on Twitter to oppose cuts in UK

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Imagine a parallel universe where the Great Crash of 2008 was followed by a Tea Party of a very different kind. Enraged citizens gather in every city, week after week—to demand the government finally regulate the behavior of corporations and the superrich, and force them to start paying taxes. The protesters shut down the shops and offices of the companies that have most aggressively ripped off the country. The swelling movement is made up of everyone from teenagers to pensioners. They surround branches of the banks that caused this crash and force them to close, with banners saying, You Caused This Crisis. Now YOU Pay.

This is exactly what is happening in the UK – where the UK Uncut movement started by targeting prominent and egregious corporate tax-evaders.

On October 27th 2010, just one week after Tory Chancellor George Osborne announced the deepest cuts to public services since the 1920s, around 70 people ran along Oxford Street, entered Vodafone’s flagship store and sat down.

The magazine Private Eye reported that one company alone—Vodafone, one of Britain’s leading cellphone firms—owed an outstanding bill of £6 billion to the British taxpayers. According to Private Eye, Vodaphone had been refusing to pay for years, claiming that a crucial part of its business ran through a post office box in ultra-low-tax Luxembourg. The last Labour government, for all its many flaws, had insisted it pay up.

But when the Conservatives came to power, David Hartnett, head of the British equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, apologized to rich people for being “too black and white about the law.” Soon after, Vodafone’s bill was reported to be largely canceled, with just over £1 billion paid in the end. Days later George Osborne, the finance minister, was urging people to invest in Vodafone by taking representatives of the company with him on a taxpayer-funded trip to India—a country where that company is also being pursued for unpaid taxes. Vodafone and Hartnett deny this account, claiming it was simply a longstanding “dispute” over fees that ended with the company paying the correct amount. The government has been forced under pressure to order the independent National Audit Office to investigate the affair and to pore over every detail of the corporation’s tax deal.

“It was clear to us that if this one company had been made to pay its taxes, almost all these people could have been kept from being forced out of their homes,” says Sam Greene, another of the protesters. “We keep being told there’s no alternative to cutting services. This just showed it was rubbish. So we decided we had to do something.”

The message of UK Uncut is simple: if corporate tax dodgers pay the tax they owe, then the massive cuts to welfare, education and hospitals won’t be needed.

A sign of the partial success of UK Uncut already is the smear attempts by conservative news outlets and commentators, particularly the Murdoch tabloid The Sun. The UK Uncut movement was derided as anarchists and Christmas-spoilers. However it is notable that most conservatives in the UK kept silent or grudgingly admitted that something should be done about tax dodging.

Originally UK Uncut existed solely as a Twitter hashtag – #ukuncut – dreamed up the night before the protest. It tapped into something, an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the Tories felt by many people in Britain. As it grew, it was organised entirely on Twitter. A Twitter account was established (@UKuncut), as was a website. Votes were taken on Twitter as to potential next targets.

The UK Uncut website give advice on how to organise actions; it’s opening gambit points to the nature of the movement:

UK Uncut is your movement. There are no centrally planned actions. If you have an idea for an action, or want one on your high street, it’s up to you to make it happen.

A key to the campaign was that it was spontaneous. There is no activist organisation resourcing the campaign or coordinating protesters. No one controls it, and it isn’t made up of “the usual suspects”. In fact, people joined the protests by staging their own local ones. Many of the people involved in the protests had never done so before.

As one UK Uncut participant, Becky Anadeche, explains, “So many campaigns rely on the premise that the less you ask somebody to do, the more likely they are to do it. This campaign has proved the opposite. People who have never even been on a protest before have been organizing them.”

For countries that have felt the brunt of the Global Financial Crisis, it could be easy to slide towards the Tea Party-style populist conservatism, with astro-turf campaigns bankrolled by billionaire Republicans (like the Koch Brothers have in Wisconsin). The voodoo economists of the World Bank and other right-wing economic institutions have proscribed “austerity” as the cure for Europe and America’s economic woes; using the crisis as an opportunity to dismantle the welfare state.

That’s why the UK Uncut movement is so intriguing. It has broken through the complacent (or complicit) media and is causing waves in the UK. It is starting to hold the Liberal Democrats (partners of the Tories) to account. It’s broken the frame that protests have typically used – a march down the main street organised by a left-wing group or two, followed by speeches and a slow dribble back home.

I’ll watch the UK Uncut movement a bit more closely in future. As the UK Uncut website says: Vodafone’s own slogan is “Power to You.” It couldn’t be more appropriate.

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