On London's Oxford Street with UKuncut

A friendly movement of flash protests against corporate tax avoidance when much needed public support is being cut captures public interest in the UK
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
19 December 2010

I had a really enjoyable time thanks to UKuncut yesterday, with the added pleasure of a philosophical boost from Alan Finlayson’s timely post, now being widely tweated. I went down to the flagship TopShop in London’s Oxford Street just past midday. I was expecting a gathering outside like the last one, to protest at large scale corporate tax avoidance. But finding just a few loners like myself looking for a demonstration I cursed that I had not twittered-up my mobile and went shopping… well, John Lewis is a mutual.I return to meet Mark Perryman and his young child, then Laurie Penny, and then Sunny Hundal as well! What pleasures.  Both Laurie and Sunny had been inside TopShop and then been thrown out. Laurie was banned for going back for three months. She reported this with a great tweat: “Oh noes! Apparently I am banned from Topshop for 3 months! Where will I buy shit leggings now?” Sunny complains that when he went into TopShop a guy with a Palestinian scarf was intimidating, shoved him and asked him what he was doing. Then he saw he and his mate had ear plugs and were plain clothes police.We decide to walk up to Vodafone. But after we get across Oxford Circus placards appear above the heads of the shoppers saying Corporate Vampires R Everywhere, with a white horned devil replacing the Vodafone logo. The flash mob had already closed it. So we turn around and join them - about 200. We cross the road, a quick left and we are inside British Home Stores. “We are the tax enforcement society!” The security staff try to stop people sitting down but with a few linked arms that fails. The police arrive, taken by surprise. The boys in Palestinian kit arrive. Later, one of the demonstrators points them out, and they wave sheepishly as we applaud them as “public servants” and warn them they might lose their jobs. There is chanting and speeches.I was near to shoppers coming in and out before all the doors are closed. They show a bemused tolerance. There is snow and there are protestors – and there is London Transport. You don’t get angry with the snow, although you might with London Transport. But then the tube doesn’t make you smile while snow and friendly demonstrators can. The public is not hostile. There are no enraged supporters of Prince Charles spitting contempt, but then this isn’t Knightsbridge. But nor is there a deep relationship with the public or wide and wholehearted spontaneous support. Red Pepper's claims mistake individual agreement with massive popular support. What there is sympathy and a sense that the issue is relevant and matters.

Our purpose demonstration gets up and goes after some friendly banter with a police inspector. We head for HSBC, a small sitdown and some chanting, Johann Hari turns up, author of the now seminal column that has been joining the dots in the Independent. It’s not much fun sitting in front of a long line of cash machines in a closed bank. We leave before the police even manage to arrive! Destination? Marks and Spencers whose chairman orchestrated a letter from businessmen supporting the Osborne budget and his strategy of shock and awe deficit reduction.

Speeches about the same are followed up by the arrival of the same police inspector who asks, “haven’t I seen your faces before” to be greeted in return by our singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow”. Meanwhile, most of a large Marks and Spencers store in Oxford Street is closed on the Saturday before Christmas. With official observers, photographers, video phones, and cameras the police are well behaved.

Suddenly Santas Against Excessive Consumption, of whom I had never heard, arrived to sing anticapitalist carols. But the doors had been locked. And are guarded by the police on our side. “Let Santa in! Let Christmas in!” They start to sing but we can’t hear them. Then they pass some of their song sheets through the door and a hilarious joint chorus follows abjuring greed.

Off we go again. As we set out stores from the big chains are shutting in advance before we get to them. I peel off as the stalwarts proceed to Vodafone in Tottenham Court Road.

It is intelligent and peaceful propaganda of the deed designed for the media. At a stroke it has won something. True, if you live by the media you can die by the media. But the members of the political class in its entirety were too frightened to attack the corporate order, even if they wanted to. Now this taboo has been broken. Politics has been enlarged. We are onto something.

Everyone knows this, which is why the Mail on Sunday has started a campaign which its readers can sign up to that pledges to boycott all Kraft products if they switch the corporate headquarters of Cadburys (which they have just taken over) to Switzerland to avoid tax. This is where UKuncut 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.

All of which gave the demonstrations all across the UK yesterday the spirit of freedom rather than ‘class war’, even though they are more engaged with the nature of capitalism than many an action by organised labour. UKuncut has has improved British politics ‘in a flash’.

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