Britons don’t normally join protests, but something has changed


10:00 am - December 5th 2010

by Adam Ramsay    


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A couple of weeks ago, I went into a Vodafone store. I had an awkward 3 minute conversation with some I vaguely recognised about which phones we liked best. Neither of us really knew the differences between them.

Then, it was 2pm. We pulled signs from under our coats, and sat down. A few other people in the store did the same, and about 20 more from outside, accompanied by a video camera, marched in to join us. Customers were ushered out, and the store was shut

I am used to protesting at shops – I’ve spent hours handing out leaflets about sweatshops and child slavery outside branches of Topshop. I’ve organised stunts about oil funding outside RBS branches.

Normally, people are vaguely supportive. They don’t like climate change, and they disapprove of child slavery. But mostly, they ignore you and get on with their day. But this was different. Passers by stopped, and joined our friends outside. Some helped to give out leaflets. Others passed food to us through the letter box. Most gave us a smile, a cheer or a thumbs up.

On Monday, I returned to Topshop, this time to highlight the tax they dodge at home rather than the children their suppliers enslave abroad. A reasonable number had turned up to the protest, and were sitting across the broad doorway of Topshop’s flagship store.

I was taking a photo, and was approached by two teenage shoppers, who asked what was going on. I explained. “Well, I’m with them”. They sat down in the road, and donned the orange head bands we were all wearing.

And so, what had been a group of 60 or so students steadily grew. Passers by joined them.

The police, without their commanders, politely asked us to move off the bits that were private property, but admitted that they too were worried about cuts. We told them that we wanted to defend their jobs, too, and moved as they asked. So they let us block the rest of the pavement.

This doesn’t normally happen. It never happens. In Britain, public protest is seen by most as an activity for political geeks and weirdo freaks. But people have reached a breaking point.

David Cameron smugly responded to the Millbank demo by saying the “every Government has it’s protests”. That’s true. But the level of support for actions against tax dodgers that we are now seeing is something new – something my generation has never known.

People are cross about cuts. And this anger will grow as austerity begins to bite. The message that there is an alternative hasn’t always got through – yet.

But when it does, more and more Oxford Street shoppers will be willing to spontaneously blockade the shops they have come to visit.

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About the author
Adam is a regular contributor. He also writes more frequently at: Bright Green Scotland.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Fight the cuts

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Reader comments


Britons don’t normally join protests? Surely you’re not serious? Mass CND rallies, the Poll Tax protests, the marches for the miners (in 1984 and 1992), the Criminal Justice Act protests, the big climate marches, anticapitalist protests, etc? The Chartists, the suffragettes, the new unionism, the Jarrow marches, the Poplar movement, the marches over Suez, the aggressive protests against Moseley in the East End? I really think you’ve misunderstood what’s happening. Britain has a very long history of having big protests, mass rallies and so on, some of it quite militant. But what’s noticeable about this is the fact that people are being deliberately disruptive: and that’s not just angry outbursts here and there, it’s part of the strategy. People interviewed on the marches say we need direct action because past governments have shown that they don’t respond when you just march from A to B and have speeches. Moral persuasion isn’t sufficient, because our opponents don’t listen to moral persuasion. You have to hurt their profit margins, disrupt the daily operations of power, make them worry about their ability to maintain their rule in a very serious way, and then you start to get somewhere with your demands, then they start to be forced to listen. The ultimate logic of this is that people withdraw their labour, which is the main force that keeps the system working. And that’s another notable thing about these protests – the sincere and committed attempt to reach out to trade unionists, and build alliances with them. These two factors make this a potentially powerful movement.

It would be interesting to know how many of those members of the public backing the protests are current or former Tory voters. Or floating voters for that matter. As long as the protests can be painted as politically biased i.e. dominated by lefties the government is unlikely to pay them any attention. The reason the Tories got rid of the poll tax wasn’t because of the protests but because middle-class Tory voters saw their tax bills rise and got angry.

Excellent stuff! So now that the protests have established tax avoidance as a talking point, there will presumably be a knowledgeable and purposeful campaign to pressurise the government to establish a commission and review every tax relief and allowance on the books, with a view to making some *very* sticky decisions and changing the law? Of course, it’s a can of worms that no government wants to touch, and some ordinary people will lose out big time from any rearrangement in tax law – but well worth it for a transparent system.

So! The protests were just a kicking off point. Obviously, disruption to Philip Green’s profit margin isn’t going to directly result in changes to the law. The goal of reducing tax avoidance to some communally agreed reasonable level is shining in the distance. What’s the plan?

Lenin – yes, I agree: Britain does have a long tradition of protest – the headline wasn’t mine. The truth is that this happens every generation or so. I’m 25. So it’s never happened in my time. And yes, lots of people have joined demo’s over the last few years. But never spontaneously. It’s the fact that they are willing to, on the spur of the moment, sit on the pavement, or help give out leaflets, that is bizarre for me. I can well believe that it’s happened before, but not in the decade or so I’ve been doing this.

Richard: well, many of them voted Lib Dem – in fact, one thing which has really defined all these demos has been people chanting about how they regret doing so. And the coverage in the Mail today, for example, shows the breadth of support for actions against tax dodgers.

Thanks,

Adam

Adam,

you’re right. The most unusual people – natural hang ’em and flog-’em types often – are supporting these protests and, most important, understanding the issues.

It’s a campaign with real power and potential.

Respect.

What a strange piece ? Posting number 1 says it all and more accurately.

I agree with this article. I believe that tax evaders should be held to account and should be made to pay their financial contributions to run our schools, hospitals, police, libraries and other council services, pensions and benefits system just like the rest of us…

I also think that this rule should apply to the Guardian Media Group!

[deleted for being abusive again]

“Britons don’t normally join protests” Apart from the jarrow march, the poll tax riots, Greenham Common, numerous industrial dispute in the 1970s, the miners strike, the anti war protests, etc etc

You are making the mistake of assuming that because something is outside your life experience, it has never happened before. The fact is that gen Y have, for the first time in their lives, got off facebook and done some real activism. It says much about them that they have done so only out of self-interest, when their perceived “right” to a higher education is threatened.

@ 7 “Tax evaders” generally are, eventually, held to account – made to pay back taxes, fined and sometimes prosecuted. This is because tax *evasion* is illegal. Tax *avoidance* on the other hand is a perfectly legal form of financial planning with the aim of reducing individual or corporate tax liabilities. It’s perfectly legal, although ethically questionable.

Matt – as I said to Lenin, I didn’t write the headline – see my comment responding to his post – basically, I agree.

Adam

Someone please change that headline; it couldn’t be more inaccurate or cliché ridden if it tried.

The goal of reducing tax avoidance to some communally agreed reasonable level is shining in the distance. What’s the plan?

Alix – the plan is to keep up the public limelight on tax avoidance until the govt is forced to do something about it. It’s best to keep certain goals simple.

@10 Matt.

” “Tax evaders” generally are, eventually, held to account – made to pay back taxes, fined and sometimes prosecuted. This is because tax *evasion* is illegal.”

Really? I take it that you haven’t been reading the ongoing saga of the Vodaphone tax “negotiations” reported in Private Eye then.

If you cannot prove that they dodged tax in court, why should I believe that they have dodged tax?

If you can prove that they dodged tax in court, get on with it and sue them.

As a Middle Class we are screwed because of the actions of the top 5% wealthiest who are more obssessed amassing £billions so that their faces appear on the front of Forbes Magazine than assist in sorting this financial mess. THey take every opportunity to pay less taxes as if this will undermine their lifestyle!!!!

17. Arthur Thistlewood

15: “If you cannot prove that they dodged tax in court, why should I believe that they have dodged tax?”

I’m pretty sure Vodafone was found to have evaded tax by courts in not one but two jurisdictions! We can argue how much intent there was on the part of Vodafone to evade tax as opposed to what they thought was legal avoidance. But in both the UK and India they have been lawfully found to have outstanding tax bills that they claimed not to have.

“If you can prove that they dodged tax in court, get on with it and sue them.”

Yes, I think it would be good for HMRC to enter into talks with Vodafone about getting the tax bill repaid. It should be a simple task, and I’m sure the bill will be paid in full so long as nothing untoward…oh.

Time to stand up for lower taxation.

@14 I haven’t read private eye since Major was in power. You may well be right about Vodafone, but the point I was trying to make is that some people seem to use “tax evasion”, “tax dodging” and “tax avoidance” as more or less interchangeable terms, when the fact is they are legally very different

20. paul barker

Mr Ramsey seems to be very new to politics, its only 3 years since 2 Million took the streets against Labours War in Iraq. The biggest march in the current wave was 50 thousand, smaller by a factor of 40.
The new thing about the recent protests is the willingness to resort to violence right from the off.

@19

Agreed.

@3. I thought we had this in one of the previous threads – wives are to be declared chattels of their husbands, so that Philip Green’s Monaco-resident wife can be taxed in the UK. Serves ‘im right for giving succour to the evil ConDems and all that.

Before anyone flames me for being sneery, what do you expect? I don’t see any other mechanism being proposed here for HMRC getting at Mrs Green, unless the point of the protests is just to be self-righteous without achieving anything. I really can’t see the left doing that.

@18 I’m with you. I don’t think it’s right these multi-millionaires should get to pay low or no taxes when I have to pay thousands of pounds a year. We should all pay low taxes.

It’s funny how much people have got their knickers in a twist over the completely legal action of tax avoidance. It is the legal right of every man, woman and child to pay as little tax as the law allows. I avoid tax by taking advantage of modest share offers at work. How soon until people come knocking at my door demanding I pay up?

@9 “The fact is that gen Y have, for the first time in their lives, got off facebook and done some real activism. It says much about them that they have done so only out of self-interest, when their perceived “right” to a higher education is threatened.”

Despite the fact that many of those protesting won’t be affected because they will have left by the time the new fees come in? Or are too young to vote but will be directly affected by the education cuts and fees so have no other way of making their voice heard?

Nice try.

Lenin – yes, I agree: Britain does have a long tradition of protest – the headline wasn’t mine. The truth is that this happens every generation or so. I’m 25. So it’s never happened in my time.

The biggest demonstrations in British history occurred just a few years ago, in protest to the invasion of Iraq. Perhaps you had a lie in and missed them.

(Of course, by the time “lenin’s” mob had led that mass movement into the blind alley of antinomian Trottery, the numbers willing to march had dwindled to an insignificant fraction. Perhaps there’s a lesson there with regard to the “comradely” relations the Leftists on this site have with the likes of the SWP.)


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