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Support UK Uncut and those arrested at Fortnum & Mason – “non-violent and sensible,” innocent and victimised

In a few short months, UK Uncut has reshaped public opinion on tax avoidance. Its peaceful actions, light-hearted and engaging people never previously involved in political activity, have left corporate Britain running scared, forced the Treasury to run training sessions in response and thrown the right-wing anti-tax Tax Payers Alliance onto the defensive. In a brilliant exploitation of the power of Twitter, they occupied not only Vodaphone‘s shops but their website too. Polly Toynbee, appearing herself at an action in Topshop, declared “these brilliant protests on tax-dodging can unite us all“. Even the Daily Mail was moved to conclude that “the shameless strategy of tax avoidance continues in the world of big business, and the losers are the millions of hard-pressed taxpayers who are left to take up the slack.”

No wonder TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, gave his backing to UK Uncut too and took steps to create an effective alliance between it the TUC. Nicholas Shaxson, a journalist, consultant, and author of Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, believed that UK Uncut was not just an exciting, short-term protest movement, but “the start of something bigger, stronger and more enduring.” In no time, US Uncut was flourishing, coast-to-coast and beyond, targetting Verizon, GE, Bank of America and FedEx. The US Left has much to teach us over here about using the web to our political advantage, but, for once, they are looking to the UK for inspiration.

There was bound to be a reaction. Corporate targets like Vodafone, Arcadia, HSBC, HMV, Boots, Barclays and KPMG are not going to see their reputations attacked without response, and early on they decided that engaging directly with the argument was not going to be their best tactic. Could it be that undermining the reputation of their detractor would prove the best approach?  That does appear to be what has happened.

In a number of right-wing newspapers, there has been a casual disregard for the distinction between the peaceful UK Uncut occupiers of Fortnum and Mason, and the violent anarchists outside. I does not help that the Police on the day were similarly inclined. As Laurie Penny observed:

I return to Fortnum’s in time to see dozens of key members of the group herded in front of the store and let out one by one, to be photographed, handcuffed and arrested. With the handful of real, random agitators easy to identify as they tear through the streets of Mayfair, the met has chosen instead to concentrate its energies on UK Uncut – the most successful, high-profile and democratic anti-cuts group in Britain.

But few got it quite as wrong as Simon Heffer:

How explicable are the actions of those who occupied Fortnum & Mason’s, attacked the Ritz and smashed shop windows in Piccadilly last Saturday? What was the extent of their oppression, the denial of their civil liberties, that caused them to launch such an assault on private property?

In truth, as we know, it was not much at all. These people are not denied the right to participate in society. They are not denied the vote. They are entitled to the full largesse of the welfare state, and many of them drink deeply of it. They just don’t like the prevailing, majority view of our capitalist society. They dignify themselves with the term “anarchists”, which abuses what in some eras has been a noble philosophy. They are, in short, criminals….

We are not dealing with rational minds, but with unstable extreme Leftists who live in a fantasy world. They are feted by parts of the media and indulged by elements of the BBC. They are every bit as evil and deluded as the shaven-headed loons who attack black people because of their race or paint swastikas on Jewish graves in cemeteries, and should be treated no differently.

What is important therefore is how the Left responds. Even if one disagrees with the decision of UK Uncut to organise actions in Central London on the day of the March 26 demonstration, they had no responsibility, direct or indirect, for the violence which occurred at Fortnum & Mason or elsewhere. Some long-standing supporters like Mehdi Hasan and Richard Murphy have expressed their disagreement with UK Uncut’s tactical decision on this occasion, which they are entitled to do. However, it makes little sense to be delighted at the widening of the range of opposition to the Cuts and to the use of new methods, if we then insist that these different methods  be subordinated to the . Others like Daniel Trilling quickly stressed:

The anti-cuts movement should not be divided by the right’s narrative on violence at Saturday’s protest… It is imperative that those with the power to do so speak out in support of the UK Uncut protesters and make sure they are not collectively punished for the actions of others.”

Unfortunately, other Labour commentators chose not to heed this advice. Fellow Staggers blogger, Dan Hodges, for example, at Labour Uncut (no relation), surveying the praise of the Labour movement for UK Uncut, took the view that:

UK Uncut was always going to spoil Labour’s party, but we invited them in…. The fact is that UK Uncut and the anarchists and the blackbloc achieved their objectives over the weekend. “Whose streets? Our streets” they chanted. Too right. They out-organised the cream of the labour movement. The failure wasn’t theirs. It was ours.

Fortunately, this morning, leading trade unionists, campaigners and charities, have come out in support of UK Uncut in a letter to the Guardian:

As a relatively new protest movement UK Uncut have played a significant part in changing the terms of debate around economic policy in this country. Indeed they were instrumental in ensuring more people were at the march on Saturday than otherwise would have been. At all times they acted in a way which complemented and supported the TUC march.

However, in taking the type of peaceful action which they routinely undertake, on Saturday UK Uncut were treated in a political and deceptive manner by the police which sends an ominous message about the right to protest (Arrests threaten future protests, lawyer warns, 30 March). It would appear activists were misled by the police about not being arrested when asked to leave the Fortnum & Mason building, after which they were held for a significant length of time, their clothing was confiscated, and they have been denied the right to protest in the near future.

We support the right to protest for a fairer and more equal world. As part of this, we condemn any politically motivated policing which provokes, intimidates or criminalises protesters. We will continue to support UK Uncut until tax justice is secured so the poorest are not forced to pay the price of a financial crisis caused by the richest.

John Hilary War on Want, Nick Dearden Jubilee Debt Campaign, Liz Nelson Tax Justice Network, Neal Lawson Compass, Mark Serwotka PCS, Jeremy Dear NUJ, Len McCluskey Unite, People and Planet

(A longer version of the letter is on the UK Uncut website)

Congratulations to them. UK Uncut deserve our full support. As the police officer in this video from the inside of Fortnum and Mason explains, the people there were “non-violent and sensible“. The footage filmed at the anti-cuts protest was shot by Green & Black Cross legal observers and handed to UK Uncut, which passed it on to the Guardian. It shows a police chief inspector telling demonstrators inside the Fortnum & Mason store they would be allowed to leave. After being led outside, Guardian footage shows the protesters being kettled and then arrested

One Comment

  1. Shaun Cohen says:

    What UK Uncut have shown is that there is an alternative, pity Ed Milliband has not followed their lead.

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