Wednesday, 19 January 2011

They say 'cut back', we say 'fight back'

Last weekend, shoppers crowded the streets of austerity Britain in search of bargains in the January sales. Some prices were down, even though VAT was up, adding over 2% to the cost of most items. With inflation also running at over 3% but wages stagnant, it's now or never if you want a genuine bargain. On Friday I bagged one for myself: a new pair of shoes at half price. You see, I too am a consumer, not too socialist to wear shoes made by The Man – or more likely by some young girl in a sweatshop in some unspecified country. When I bought those shoes, I was in truth more concerned with their affordability than the ethics of their manufacture. Indeed, I was never confronted with any ethical decision, since the shoes did not announce where they were made or by whom; they were just a half price pair of shoes – a bargain. On Friday then, I was a good consumer.

On Saturday, I donned a different guise and became a subversive, an agitator, a protester, demonstrator, irritant, pain in the arse. That’s certainly how some shoppers and shop workers might have described me and the band of protesters known as UK Uncut, who mounted a series of demonstrations outside shops in Oxford Street that afternoon. We briefly closed down Vodafone, before moving on to BHS, Topshop and Boots. However, whilst some bargain hunters may have been slightly irked by our presence, many others stopped to listen to our message and voiced their agreement with it. That message was that corporate tax avoidance was largely responsible for the size of the budget deficit and that spending cuts plus the VAT increase are not a necessity but a political choice by this government, to favour big business and wealthy individuals whilst making the rest of us shoulder the burden of a crisis largely created by rich bankers.

UK Uncut Protesters outside BHS
As a mark of the egalitarian, democratic nature of our group, we took it in turns to speak through a megaphone, which was passed around among us, like some electrified conch. Sitting outside Vodafone, the first point to make was that Vodafone had been trying to avoid £6 billion worth of tax and that the Treasury had very generously let them off all but £1.25 billion of this. If you are self-employed and doing your tax return this month, I suggest you try striking a similar deal and see how far you get. We may all be ‘in it together’, but it seems that some of us are very much more in it than others. The amount of tax legally avoided or illegally evaded each year has been estimated at over £40 billion by the Treasury, although other sources suggest that the true figure is closer to £120 billion.

Much of that gap is due to corporate tax avoidance, using well-known loopholes which the government shows no interest in closing – instead they are reducing the number of tax inspectors. We informed the shoppers of Oxford Street that if corporations and the rich were made to pay all the taxes they owed, then there would be no so-called ‘structural deficit’ whatsoever, and no need for any spending cuts at all. The tuition fee rise, the VAT increase, rail fare increases, public sector job losses, library closures, welfare cuts: all these and more could be completely reversed at a single stroke. In addition to allowing corporations simply to avoid the taxes they owe, the government is also pushing ahead with a cut in the headline rate of corporation tax from 28% to 24% over the next 4 years, which will more than soften the blow of any bank levy they might impose. It also means that in effect, large corporations will be able to lower their tax bills to under 20% of their profits (Boots only paid 3% last year), which is less than the small business rate and the standard rate of income tax.

Does anyone still believe we're 'all in it together'? Just as most people are preparing to tighten their belts, bankers in the City are preparing to pop the champagne corks yet again, despite the fact that the banks are still receiving support from the taxpayer to the value of £512 billion, down from a peak of £1 trillion, in addition to about £115 billion in direct bail-outs. Bankers still think that they deserve to share a bonus pot of around £7 billion, which happens to be roughly the same amount which was cut from higher education spending, leading to the rise in student tuition fees. Given such figures, it is no wonder that our message was very well received by the great majority of passers by. The minor inconvenience we were causing to shoppers paled to nothing beside the inconvenience caused to us all by corporate venality in its various forms.

Our action was entirely peaceful, although there was just one moment when a scuffle threatened to break out. I was standing next to a fellow protester just outside Topshop when the police insisted that we move away from a doorway. My colleague wanted to discuss the legality of the matter, but the police were not in a chatty mood and decided to shove us back with considerable force. Had we reciprocated, we would have been arrested, of course, but we had no interest in provoking such a confrontation, which would only have detracted enormously from an otherwise successful and peaceful day of protest. The actions of those two police officers did remind us, though, that the police usually need very little provocation in order to escalate a situation from peaceful protest to violent confrontation. We had to exercise a degree of self-control not to take their bait, but always to steer a course just on the right side of the law, which in the last decade has become increasingly hostile to many of our democratic freedoms, including free expression and the right to protest.

Still, I do not want to characterise police officers as being all the same. I personally know some to be very decent people, and most of those we encountered were simply trying to do their jobs, cheerfully and dutifully, for which I thank them. Indeed, they are supposed to be public servants, and many of their jobs are under threat. We pointed out the irony that Sir Philip Green, the owner of Topshop and BHS, avoids paying income tax in the UK because he siphons his earnings through his Monaco-resident wife and therefore does not contribute his fair share to the wages of the police officers protecting his interests.

Sir Philip Green's tax avoidance assisted by his friends in government
In a further ironic twist, this fact has not dissuaded the government from employing Sir Philip (at taxpayers' expense) to advise it on making efficiency savings. Perhaps Sir Philip would be good enough to advise David Cameron that a great deal of money could be saved by closing tax loopholes which allow people like him and our Chancellor of the Exchequer to sequester most of their wealth and income in tax havens. Perhaps they think that taxes are just for ‘the little people’, like us? Well, the little people are serving notice that we are not going to take it lying down any more.

A friend of mine on the protest did manage to get herself banned from Topshop for 3 months, presumably for daring to challenge Sir Philip Green’s legal right, as a billionaire, to pay less tax than the rest of us. Happily, I can report that she is bearing up well under this terrible hardship, in the knowledge that she is now a martyr to our noble cause. One has to smile ruefully at the thought that the right to go shopping – and avoid paying your dues to society but only if you’re rich enough – now seems to be accorded greater respect than rights to such things as education, job opportunities, fair taxation and even free speech. We need to change that.

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