You are hereAlternet: "I Pay, You Pay, Why Doesn't B of A?": Are We Seeing the Birth of a Totally New Protest Movement?

Alternet: "I Pay, You Pay, Why Doesn't B of A?": Are We Seeing the Birth of a Totally New Protest Movement?

UK Uncut doesn't have leaders, hierarchy, a PR firm or funders, yet in six months it has changed the face of British politics. 

April 12, 2011- It’s April 5, the end of the financial year, and 100 people – mostly strangers – have their arms linked in a massive circle, occupying the heart of Canary Wharf, the hyper-real maze of steel and plate glass that is the home of Britain’s financial services industries, banks and corporate law firms: the firms that caused the recession, yet lived to tell the tale. Besuited commuters look on in amusement as they sashay their way to the rush hour subway station. “It’s tax year’s eve!” cries someone from the circle, in mock celebration, then they begin to sing: first falteringly, then full-throatedly, over and over, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne:

“Should tax avoidance be forgot/And never brought to mind/Should tax avoidance be forgot/Unfairness you will find/For schools and hospitals, my dear/For pensions and home care/For EMA and libraries/Just pay your bloody share.”

This could only be the work of UK Uncut. From the country that brought you the Suffragettes, the Chartists, the Levellers, and the peasants’ revolt of 1381, UK Uncut is the zeitgeist’s protest movement, a web 2.0-enabled incarnation of the aforementioned.

UK Uncut doesn’t have leaders, a hierarchy, a PR firm or funders; it’s not violent, it’s not party-affiliated or backed, and yet in six months it’s changed the face of British politics: on the left and in the protest movement, across the mainstream media, into parliament itself, and beyond the shores of the UK, to US Uncut, Canada Uncut and even, astonishingly, Sudan Uncut.

UK Uncut’s beginnings have already become the stuff of legend among anti-cuts protesters: last October, 12 friends gathered in a north London pub for a quiet pint, and conversation turned to the £83bn public spending cuts just announced by the Conservative government. This was, as many feared, to be a neoliberal austerity regime that would use the recession to destroy the welfare state, an opportunistic, radical assault on the last vestiges of social democracy, and a product of ideology not necessity, as Paul Krugman observed in the New York Times. British government policy was outlined in a nutshell by Conservative MP Greg Barker, speaking last week at the University of South Carolina: “we are making cuts that Margaret Thatcher could only have dreamt of...many government departments are seeing their budgets cut by 30 percent. We are also going to slash business tax, and slash regulation.”

The ‘gang of 12’s novel, though short-term idea, was to highlight the often inaccessible issue of corporate tax avoidance, by going straight to its most visible manifestations: the city-center branches of banks and retail chains. At the end of October they and 60 friends occupied cell phone company Vodafone’s flagship London store, in protest at their alleged £6bn unpaid tax bill, and the rest is history. It was only ever going to be a one-off, and #UKuncut was just a hashtag dreamed up the night before, for people following the action on Twitter. The next weekend, nearly 30 Vodafone stores were occupied across the country.

The friends who launched UK Uncut accidentally created a monster: over the coming weeks and months, hundreds of direct actions against tax avoidance have taken place in British town centers and shopping districts, organized locally, essentially autonomously. The user-generated ‘actions list’ is a wonder to behold.

The UK Uncut message is clear, emphatic and unburdened by ideological or party dogma: that while the British government (whose ministers number 23 millionaires out of 29) introduces an austerity and privatization regime of incredible audacity, the super-wealthy barely pay any tax at all. This intensification of what we have taken to calling ‘market fundamentalism’ – and more specifically, a breathtaking 300 percent rise in university tuition fees – led to a wave of student and youth protests, direct actions, and occupations that shocked Britain throughout the winter. Finally, on Saturday, March 26, the trade union movement gathered its institutional weight to join the fight – billed as the March for the Alternative, it saw 500,000 people take to the streets – the biggest trade union march in decades, and the largest protest in Britain since 2 million people marched against the Iraq war in 2003.



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