The Rise of ‘British’ People Power

This weekend in central London, amidst the falling snow and crowds of Christmas shoppers, British protesters carried out their biggest day of mass action this year – the targeting of major high street retailers to highlight the issue of corporate tax dodging.

On the surface, the cause of the protests might seem nothing new; campaign groups have long pointed out how Britain loses an estimated £100 billion a year to tax dodging by multinational corporations, money that could double funding for the ailing National Health Service and finance poverty reduction programmes throughout the developing world. Many non-governmental organisations, such as the Tax Justice Network, have dedicated years of high-level research and advocacy work to the important field of tax and regulation, boldly declaring on their website homepage that “tax havens cause poverty” – a cause that is seldom discussed around most kitchen tables and widely ignored by most governments.

Yet on Saturday, hundreds of protesters braved the freezing weather and carried out 55 separate protests up and down the country in the name of corporate tax evasion, closing down several high street stores on the busiest shopping day of the year. For a British public renowned for its stiff upper lip and middle class respectability, there is no real precedent for hundreds of people storming through the commercial maelstrom of Oxford Street – without prior permission from police authorities, as in the usual city demonstrations – and chanting such slogans as “Pay Your Tax!”, or “Where Did All The Money Go? He Sent It Off To Monaco!”. In Brighton, some activists even glued themselves onto store windows as a way of stopping trading.

Contrary to what the establishment Daily Telegraph newspaper reported, the main victims of the protests were not the people trying to buy Christmas presents for their loved ones. As Jeremy Wight reported in Red Pepper, most shoppers weren’t at all annoyed with the tax protesters – in fact, many of them joined in the sit-down demonstrations and showed “a spontaneous outpouring of solidarity”, even ordinary ‘shoppers’ who had known nothing about the cause.

The obvious reason for this drastic change in public sentiment is the harsh austerity measures currently being pushed through by the UK coalition government. As expressed by UK Uncut, the umbrella group that has organised the nationwide protests which first began on December 4th: “If you’re angry that the government is cutting services for the poorest and most vulnerable whilst letting the rich avoid billions in tax, then please join us, even if you have never been on a protest before.” Tax justice is back on the agenda because people can clearly see the link with ‘austerity’, now that the government’s rhetoric on public sector cuts is being exposed as a confidence scam.

“We will not accept a cabinet of millionaires cutting services for the poorest and most vulnerable”, says a press release by UK Uncut. And clearly the public now ‘get’ the tragic irony of Sir Philip Green, the billionaire owner of the high street fashion empire Arcadia, avoiding paying £285 million in taxes to the public purse whilst advising the government on austerity measures and cuts within the civil service.

An emerging spirit of protest

But it could be that the UK tax protests have a far wider significance, and not only for British politics. Many commentators are already calling them the most valuable protests in Britain for years – a cause that could force the government to reign in the tax avoidance strategies of the super-rich, and lead to fewer public sector cuts and a more equal country. The energy that is galvanising the public on Britain’s high streets is the same energy that mobilised the previously inert student population to suddenly erupt in protest, almost overnight in November, against the market-driven privatisation strategy for university education. If the government wants to bring the market into education, say the student protestors, then we’ll “bring education into the market”.

So the same students occupying universities in protest against tuition fee hikes are organising outside Topshop and Vodafone, tied together with orange rope to symbolise the bondage of student debt, and educating the public about the impact of tax avoidance on public spending. According to openDemocracy founder, Anthony Barnett, who attended Saturday’s protest on Oxford Street: “This is where UK Uncut links to the student protests which were never just about fees but against the imposition of a world without choice – except for what was on calculated offer from a financial system that is patently unjust and probably failing.” Under such a wide and inclusive banner, it was not out of place for a group of men dressed as Santa – under the name Santa’s Against Excessive Consumption – to join the protests, sing witty carol songs, and promote the message: “Santa’s Home Is Melting: Christmas Consumption Causes Climate Change”.

In the space of a few weeks, student riots have evolved into a nationwide movement characterised by intelligent, humorous and peaceful direct actions – from flashmobs and pamphleteers to slogan chanters and sit-down protesters – now mobilised via Twitter and Facebook and communicated across the globe. “After the long, drowsy years of apathy and inaction”, says the author Dan Hind, “debt and celebrity-worship are over. In Britain, as elsewhere, the public is back.”

The question that remains is not only how this new movement will continue to evolve in Britain, but whether it can connect with the popular protests in other countries through its fundamental call for equality and justice. As 2010 draws to a close, there is reason everywhere for much apathy and pessimism about the new year ahead – the continued wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the shift to the right by many national governments, a worsening financial climate leading to further job losses, the ongoing failure of global negotiations on climate change, the privatisation of public services and austerity measures in many countries, and the prospect of increasing poverty and inequality in both the Global North and South.

But at the same time, a cause for hope and optimism can be found in the changing form of anti-austerity protests across Europe. Eventually, the emerging spirit of protest in the United Kingdom must recognise the possibility of a united global public voice – one based on an inclusive and unified demand for governments to reorder their distorted priorities. Such a possibility of concerted international action for justice is no longer a pipe dream, as the web-based political movement Avaaz has been demonstrating for the past four years. Perhaps the sudden creation of a British protest movement at the end of 2010, based on a peaceful form of solidarity that is far more powerful than any call for revolution, is the latest indication of a worldwide public opinion in the making. Let’s hope so.

Adam Parsons is the editor at Share The World's Resources (STWR), a London-based civil society organization campaigning for a fairer distribution of wealth, power, and resources within and between nations. STWR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 2003 with Consultative Status at the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. He publishes and speaks regularly on global justice and environmental issues, focusing on food insecurity, urban poverty, and people’s movements. He is the author of Megaslums: A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa and The Seven Myths of Slums: Challenging Popular Prejudices about the World’s Urban Poor. Read other articles by Adam, or visit Adam's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rehmat said on December 21st, 2010 at 8:37am #

    I could read the sign in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire: “Muslims against Christmas”.

  2. MichaelKenny said on December 21st, 2010 at 9:56am #

    Putting the emphasis on something positive, like fiscal or social justice, certainly seems to be a more positive approach to the present crisis than simply saying no to this or that. The other thing, of course, is the international dimension. People are beginning to realise that they are all in the same boat. That, I think, is why the attack on the euro so seriously backfired. Instead of attacking each other, people called for a stronger EU to protect them against the Wall St speculators. Another part of that backfiring is the underlying point in Mr Parsons’ article: the people of Britain are starting to see themselves in the same boat as all other Europeans. We don’t need a revolution in Europe, we just have to do like the Swiss already do: solidarity against the outside world but tolerance of difference among ourselves.

  3. bozh said on December 21st, 2010 at 10:11am #

    i am glad smbody else points out to swiss model that we cld emulate. they rightfully stay out of u.n., and thus stay out of wars. that alone is big +. tnx

  4. jayn0t said on December 21st, 2010 at 3:58pm #

    Compared with the protests against the cuts on December 9, this was a pathetic diversion. What’s the point of protesting against corporate tax evasion? It means demanding that more value is forcibly transferred from private hands to the government – is the government a more responsible spender than industry? Rather than ‘people power’, it’s ‘people giving power to the state’. I was puzzled by the rage at bonuses for bankers – sorry luvvies, that’s how capitalism works. When a bank gives a banker a million quid, you can be sure he made at least ten million for the bank. I have no objection to my employer rewarding me – why bankers? British people still confuse ‘the people’ with the government, and assume these are good, and the top-hatted capitalists are bad. Get a life.

  5. Don Hawkins said on December 21st, 2010 at 4:24pm #

    Jaynot so far your thinking will happen and how does it play out, not well.

  6. bozh said on December 21st, 2010 at 4:27pm #

    but if govt wld equally represents all people, then, tax cuts make sense. if u.s govt, or rather, u.s governance favors some people over other, as is obviously the case in u.s., then, the tax cuts eventually go by tortuous routes right back where they come from.
    making the whole thing a charade.
    as indeed rich are getting richer, no matter what an u.s govt does or doesn’t do. tnx

  7. Deadbeat said on December 21st, 2010 at 6:03pm #

    jaynot writes …

    Compared with the protests against the cuts on December 9, this was a pathetic diversion. What’s the point of protesting against corporate tax evasion? It means demanding that more value is forcibly transferred from private hands to the government – is the government a more responsible spender than industry?

    The answer is that government is more responsible since government doesn’t function for profit and can spend on services like the NIH that would bankrupt the private sector or make it inaccessible and too expensive for most individuals. What you seem to forget is that their is at least some democratic check on governments. There is no democratic check on business unless it occurs from government. This is why the wealthy are so political active to make sure that the government works for them and not the people. The fact is that Capitalism everyday ROBS from the people and thus the only way to redistribute this robbery is through taxes on the rich and corporations.

    When a bank gives a banker a million quid, you can be sure he made at least ten million for the bank.

    Banks can only make their money via debt with is a charge on people who do not have access to resources. Thus this is an unfair and parasitical relationship that should be taxed and LEAST rewarded.

    I have no objection to my employer rewarding me – why bankers? British people still confuse ‘the people’ with the government, and assume these are good, and the top-hatted capitalists are bad. Get a life.

    Are you a puppy and require “rewards” from and employer. If you embrace that as a relationship I feel sorry for you.

  8. jayn0t said on December 22nd, 2010 at 7:52am #

    @Deadbeat – all workers require rewards from their employer.

    More importantly, I think you’ve missed the fact that governments require payment from ‘the people’ as well as from the evil top-hatted cigar-smoking capitalists. Welfare is often twinned with warfare. The National Health Service was a product of the fact that Churchill needed 3 million able-bodied men, and couldn’t find them. Corporations don’t make war – the ‘war for oil’ theorem is a leftist myth, as you know. Democracy caused the bombing of Tokyo and Hiroshima, just as surely as dictatorship led to Katyn and Belsen.

    I’m aware that banks make money out of people with no resources – that’s capitalism. Hopefully, there is an alternative, but demanding more power for the government isn’t it.