The deepest cuts to Britain’s public spending since World War II were announced in October. At the same time, it was revealed that some of the nation’s biggest corporations and richest people were using legal loopholes to avoid paying tax.
The treasurer in the Conservative Party-Liberal Democrat coalition government, Conservative MP George Osborne, announced that £81 billion would be slashed from public spending including £7 billion in welfare cuts.
Former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling told the British Guardian the obvious on October 21, saying: “The poorest are losing more as a proportion of their income as a result of these changes.”
In response to the cuts, the idea for a series of protests targeting some of the nation’s biggest tax dodgers was born in a North London pub by a small group of activists, BBC Newsnight said on January 31.
The first protest, under the banner “UK Uncut”, took place on October 27.
About 70 people, including at least two undercover police officers, staged a sit-in, shutting down Vodafone’s Oxford Street store in London, the December 3 Guardian said.
Since then, using Twitter to organise actions, the UK Uncut movement has spread to about 55 towns and cities. The actions have involved many first-time activists, including pensioners.
A website, UKuncut.org.uk, was developed to share resources. The site has been used to suggest targets and share flyers aimed at customers. Resources on the site have also included letters to workers in the stores targeted by protests, explaining that they are not the target of the action.
The site is used to promote the various protests in different places.
During the busy lead-up to Christmas, people mobilised on high streets all over Britain. Stores that were occupied and shut down in protest against tax dodging include Boots, Topshop, BHS, Dorothy Perkins, Burton and HSBC bank.
Many of these brands are part of the Arcadia fashion empire run by billionaire businessman Sir Philip Green. Arcadia is owned by Taveta Investments Limited, which is registered in the tax-haven island of Jersey.
Its owners are listed as Green’s wife and family. They reside in Monaco, which has an income tax rate of 0%.
Green was invited to carry out an external review of the coalition spending cuts before they were announced.
Protests by UK Uncut have included leafleting customers and sit-ins. Stunts, such as one carried out in a Boots store, have included creating a make-shift hospital to treat cuts, with activists dressed as doctors and nurses.
Themed actions have also been used to highlight the cuts to local libraries and school sports. In London, UKuncut.org.uk said protesters staged a “read in” at a Vodafone store and a “sports day” at a Topshop store on December 18. The actions were part of at least 50 anti-cut protests that took place across the country that day.
Tesco, which controls 30% of the British grocery market, has also been the target of stunts and culture jamming paste-ups on store windows stating: “Tax dodgers. Every Fiddle Helps” (a play on Tesco’s slogan: “Every little helps”).
UK Uncut activist Ellie Mae O’Hagan told BBC Newsnight: “Every private company like Vodafone, as powerful as they seem to us, they are completely reliant on us, so I think brand damage is very, very powerful, because without the brand they don’t exist, they don't have anything.”
BBC Newsnight reported Matt Prodger said: “According to Revenue and Customs there are 22 big firms which it is pursuing for a total of £14.9 billion.
“Now to put that into perspective, £14.9 billion is equivalent to about 20% of the money the government is trying to save by cuts to public services over the next four years.”
The protests have been largely peaceful. However, on January 30 police arrested an activist during a sit-in outside a Boots store after she attempted to push leaflets under the door of the store, UKuncut.org.uk said that day.
Police also used pepper spray against protesters and three people were taken to hospital, BBC Newsnight said.
UK Uncut activist Zoe Stavri told BBC Newsnight: “All we’ve been doing is protesting peacefully. The girl who got arrested was posting some leaflets under the door and apparently this is littering and criminal damage.
“The police decided to pepper spray the crowd of people [who were] arguing that this was a disproportionate reason to arrest someone.”
UK Uncut condemned the police actions and vowed to continue anti-cuts protests.