UK Uncut

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= fair taxation and anti-cuts movement spreading internationally from the UK Goal: making tax avoiders pay to make spending cuts unnecessary

URL = http://twitter.com/#!/UKuncut

History

Johann Hari:

" 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.”

They resolved to set up an initial protest that would prick people’s attention. They called themselves UK Uncut and asked several liberal-left journalists, on Twitter (full disclosure: I was one of them), to announce a time and place where people could meet “to take direct action protest against the cuts and show there’s an alternative.” People were urged to gather at 9:30 am on a Wednesday morning outside the Ritz hotel in central London and look for an orange umbrella. More than sixty people arrived, and they went to one of the busiest Vodafone stores—on Oxford Street, the city’s biggest shopping area—and sat down in front of it so nobody could get in.

“What really struck me is that when we explained our reasons, ordinary people walking down Oxford Street were incredibly supportive,” says Alex Miller, a 31-year-old nurse. “People would stop and tell us how they were terrified of losing their homes and their jobs—and when they heard that virtually none of it had to happen if only these massive companies paid their taxes, they were furious. Several people stopped what they were doing, sat down and joined us. I guess it’s at that point that I realized this was going to really take off.”

That first protest grabbed a little media attention—and then the next day, in a different city, three other Vodafone stores were shut down in the northern city of Leeds, by unconnected protests. UK Uncut realized this could be replicated across the country. So the group set up a Twitter account and a website, where members announced there would be a national day of protest the following Saturday. They urged anybody who wanted to organize a protest to e-mail them so it could be added to a Google map. Britain’s most prominent tweeters, such as actor Stephen Fry, joined in.

That Saturday Vodafone’s stores were shut down across the country by peaceful sit-ins. The crowds sang songs and announced they had come as volunteer tax collectors. Prime Minister David Cameron wants axed government services to be replaced by a “Big Society,” in which volunteers do the jobs instead. So UK Uncut announced it was the Big Society Tax Collection Agency.

The mix of people who turned out was remarkable. There were 16-year-olds from the housing projects who had just had their £30-a-week subsidy for school taken away. There were 78-year-olds facing the closure of senior centers where they can meet their friends and socialize. A chuckling 64-year-old woman named Mary James said, “The scare stories will say this protest is being hijacked by anarchists. If anything, it’s being hijacked by pensioners!” They stopped passers-by to explain why they were protesting by asking, “Sir, do you pay your taxes? So do I. Did you know that Vodafone doesn’t?”

The police looked on, bemused. There wasn’t much they could do: in a few places, they surrounded the Vodafone stores before the protesters arrived, stopping anyone from going in or out—in effect doing the protesters’ job for them. One police officer asked me how this tax dodge had been allowed to happen, and when I explained, he said, “So you mean I’m likely to lose my job because these people won’t pay up?” (http://www.thenation.com/article/158282/how-build-progressive-tea-party)


Governance

"UK Uncut organized entirely on Twitter, asking what it should do next and taking votes." (http://www.thenation.com/article/158282/how-build-progressive-tea-party)


Example

Johann Hari:

"The UK Uncut message was simple: if you want to sell in our country, you pay our taxes. They are the membership fee for a civilized society. Most of the protesters I spoke with had never attended a demonstration before, but were driven to act by the rising unemployment, insecurity and austerity that are being outpaced only by rising rewards for the superrich. Ellie Mae O’Hagan, a 25-year-old office worker in Liverpool, one of the most economically depressed places in the country, said she was “absolutely outraged to discover that I was paying more than Philip Green in taxes.” She added, “I could see what all the cuts were doing. My brother had been made redundant, loads of my friends were unemployed and I could see it all getting worse, while these bankers get even bigger bonuses. And I thought, Right, you’ve got to do something. So I e-mailed UK Uncut to ask if there was a protest happening in Liverpool. They said, Not yet, so you organize one. So I spent forty-eight hours arranging one. And a hundred people turned up—an amazing mixture of people, who I had never met, and who didn’t know each other—and we shut down both Vodafone stores. Suddenly, it felt like we weren’t passive anymore. We were standing up for ourselves.” (http://www.thenation.com/article/158282/how-build-progressive-tea-party)


Discussion

UK Uncut as Meme

Aaron Peters:

A primary example of how social movements as memes can operate within the network society for British audiences is UKUncut. As the 'about' blurb reads on their homepage:

- On October 27th 2010, just one week after George Osborne announced the deepest cuts to public services since the 1920s, around 70 people ran down Oxford Street entered Vodafone's flagship store and sat down. We had shut down tax-dodging Vodafone’s flagship store…

…At that point, UK Uncut only existed as #ukuncut, a hashtag someone had dreamed up the night before the protest. As we sat in the doorway, chanting and handing leaflets to passers by, the hashtag began to trend around the UK and people began to talk about replicating our action. The idea was going 'viral'. The seething anger about the cuts had found an outlet. Just three days later and close to thirty Vodafone stores had been closed around the country.

The claim that UKUncut was 'just a hashtag' was, although humble, fundamentally incorrect. After the first action UKUncut already possessed the elements to become a social movement capable of imitation and reproduction. Firstly, it had a shared identity of participants - British taxpayers or those opposed to tax avoidance and who favoured progressive general taxation as the fairest way of funding collective forms of health and work insurance as well as education and elderly care.

Secondly, it had isolated a point of political antagonism and an 'enemy' - multinational companies and high net worth individuals who sought to avoid tax or minimize costs of tax through clandestine (albeit legal) means. Thirdly, it had the ability through online platforms such as Twitter to disseminate through informal networks very quickly. Fourthly, its chosen tactic of protest - closing down high street outlets of tax-avoiding multinationals such as Vodafone and Boots - was easily replicable on any British high-street.

One can easily isolate the areas that render UKUncut a social movement capable of being easily replicated. The costs of entry are low and hence high participation resulted, just like with the #occupy movement. The ease with which to replicate such action, antagonism and shared identity meant that UKUncut was, without the initial participants perhaps recognising it, the perfect example of how a social movement as meme might go 'viral'.

It is of course arguable as to whether or not UKUncut remains 'memetically' reproduced. I would contend not and would instead hold it increasingly closer to a traditional social movement organisation with a permanent secretariat. Initially, however, it was generated and regenerated in a very similar manner to the #occupy movements in Acampa da Sol, Wall Street and now London. UKUncut was a paradigmatic example of the social movement as memetically reproduced by online communication and offline affinity groups and action." (http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/aaron-peters/reproduction-of-movements-without-organisation-ukuncut-ows-occupymovement)


UK Uncut as networked protest and example of Open Source Activism

Guy Aitchison and Aaron Peters:

"Some of the most innovative and effective manifestations of discontent in the nascent anti-cuts movement have been facilitated by networks, while traditional organisations have been slow to respond. It started with a series of successful blockouts of a number of high-street retailers for the mobile phone giant Vodafone in protest at an alleged £6 billion of tax avoidance. Utilising a number of tools, all of which are of paramount importance to the new open source model, such as Twitter, Facebook, email and smartphones, a loosely connected group of activists mobilised for an initial block-out of the firm’s flagship store in Bond Street, London. The success of this first action generated a viral loop, the coverage it received amongst the conventional mass media, Indymedia and Twitter creating an ecology whereby disparate and previously disconnected actors, who shared similar concerns, were inspired and empowered to imitate the original protest drawing on the same tools and techniques.

The past few months have seen sit-ins, pickets, educational lectures, super-glue stick-ons and flash mobs on high streets across the UK targeting Vodafone and retail outlets owned by Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia group. On Saturday 18 December over fifty self-organised actions took place across the country, from Aberdeen to Truro. Even at this early date, the solidarity shown between those engaged in resistance to the cuts, especially the linking up of the student movement with UK Uncut, indicates the potential emergence of a unified identity and purpose.

The remarkable outburst of civil disobedience precipitated by UK Uncut, organised almost exclusively via Twitter and Facebook, belies Malcolm Gladwell’s influential critique of digital activism for the New Yorker, which assumes that only the “strong-form” offline ties can create the necessary relationships of trust and support that lead people to engage in direct action together. Through the UK Uncut networks, groups of strangers come together to carry out actions, often at personal risk to themselves. By taking part in these actions together, they strike up the “strong bonds” of friendship and trust on which they can build a more concerted campaigning effort. In this way, online and offline activism are interlaced and reinforce each other: the dichotomy which Gladwell and others wish to draw between low-risk online activity, such as signing a petition, tweeting a link, joining a Facebook group, and more high-risk offline activity, centred around direct action, simply doesn’t hold.

The UK Uncut protests have had a remarkable success in shifting public opinion, including a positive response from the Daily Mail, and opening up a public debate on the issue of tax avoidance. Going forward there is no reason why this outburst of civil disobedience, generated by UK Uncut, should not increase significantly as more people engage with the message of the anti-cuts movement, but more importantly as more people engage with the new mediums through which that message is distributed." (http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/guy-aitchison-aaron-peters/open-sourcing-of-political-activism-how-internet-and-networks-)

More Information

Sister orgs:

  1. Canada Uncut, http://canadauncut.net/
  2. U.S. Uncut, http://www.usuncut.org/
  3. Australia Uncut, http://twitter.com/#!/AustraliaUncut