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The rise of ‘British’ people power

Adam Parsons

In the space of a few weeks, a nationwide protest movement has emerged in Britain characterised by intelligent, humorous and peaceful direct actions. The question that remains is whether it can connect with the popular protests in other countries through its fundamental call for equality and justice, writes Adam Parsons. 

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.