On October 27th 2010, just one week after George Osborne announced the deepest cuts to public services since the 1920s, 70 people ran along Oxford Street, entered Vodafone’s flagship store and sat down. Vodafone had dodged £6 billion of tax, so we shut down their flagship store. UK Uncut had been born.
We started as an idea and a hashtag; they both went viral. Just three days later, on October 30th, and thirty Vodafone stores had been closed around the country. One week later the ‘Big Society Revenue and Customs’ was launched – if the government weren’t going to make tax avoiders pay, we were. Philip Green’s tax avoiding empire was added to our list of targets and in London we shut down his biggest store. In Bury St Edmunds Alex and his Mum lay down in a Vodafone doorway, forcing it to close. That day 23 different towns and cities came out in protest. Two weeks later, on ‘Pay-Day’, there were 55 protests on high streets up and down the country. In Brighton activists dressed as Santa glued themselves inside BHS, London’s flag-ship Topshop store hosted an activist ‘sport-day’ with egg and spoon races, football and star jumps. In Liverpool a fifteen year-old girl organised an action and shut down a Topshop, before running home to revise for her GCSE the next morning. On January 30th we mobilised again, adding Boots and Tesco to our list of tax dodging targets, on the day before tax return deadline, up to 30 protests took place around the country. In the space of a couple of months, we had become a national movement.
February saw the start of the second stage of our campaign. We turned our attention to the banks. And ‘Uncut’ went global. On February 26th UK Uncut and the newly formed US Uncut ‘bailed-in’ to the bailed-out banks. Over 100 actions took place, from London and Dundee to New York and Honolulu. In the UK, we set up crèches, laundries, school class rooms, libraries, homeless shelters, drama club, walk-in clinics, youth centre, job centres, and leisure centres in banks across the country. We had a simple message: it’s their crisis, they should pay for it.
Things didn’t slow down in March. On the 26th we joined the 500,000 other people marching through central London, demanding an alternative to cuts and austerity. UK Uncut groups from all over the country came together to transform Oxford Street, banks and shops were occupied and turned into libraries and theatres, we had Shakespeare at BHS with Sam and Anthony West, and an open air comedy gig with Josie Long and Mark Thomas performing. Hundreds of us then moved together to occupy the iconic Fortnum and Masons; iconic not just as the Queen’s grocery, but as a tax dodger. Hundreds of people took a stand against the government cuts and corporate tax avoidance. 145 of us were arrested and charged at a protest described by the senior police officer on the scene as ‘sensible and non-violent’. 30 of our number are still on trial. In the press and in Parliament we took one hell of a beating. But from difficult times, amazing new things emerged. The support and solidarity we have received has been inspiring, from groups and individuals, NGOs and trade unions, from Mums Uncut and Art Uncut.
And in May we bounced back! Once again we occupied banks across the country to perform an ‘Emergency Operation’ to save our NHS from government cuts. Activists dressed in scrubs and armed with fake blood and bandages set up ‘operating theatres’ inside branches of the four major banks. Uncut continued to go global, with Portugal and Canada Uncut holding their first actions. In April US Uncut staged hundreds of occupations of tax-dodging corporations from Hawaii to New Hampshire across a four-day period.
In June we supported the workers striking for the alternative, the Big Society Breakfast took solidarity-tea to the picket lines to show that ‘we are all in it together’. 700,000 were on strike that day; millions more are due out in November.
And on October 9th we took part in the biggest single act of mass civil disobedience in this country for years. Over two thousand people came to the heart of London from all over the country to occupy Westminster Bridge in a last stand for the NHS. We were entertained in the autumn sunshine by our clown doctors, and joined together with healthcare workers, patients, trade unionists and concerned citizens. We came to block the bridge and block the bill. We left empowered and inspired by the people willing to stand up for what’s right. The end of that action saw the first general assembly which would become Occupy London, still camped bravely outside St Paul’s.
What a year it has been. Every person who has been a part of UK Uncut should feel proud of what they have done, and empowered to do more. In one year we have come so far. From a hashtag and an idea, we have become a national and international network of people taking action.
UK Uncut is made up of the people who take part in actions. We are you. We are mums and pensioners, trade unionists and students, private sector employees and the unemployed, the disabled and school children. We are ordinary people standing up (or sitting-in) for what we believe, and for the change we want to see.
Occasionally people ask us what we’ve achieved and what we hope to achieve as UK Uncut. When they do, think of the inspiring, creative direct actions we’ve taken together, of the networks of friends and activists we’ve forged, and the debate we’ve lit about the genuine alternatives to these unnecessary cuts. We have had thousands of inches of coverage for our concerns in the national press, we got tax avoidance onto prime time television, we have helped shape the debate and pushed tax avoidance way up the political agenda. The Queen’s lawyers said we had it right, HMRC ran training sessions on us and PR experts discussed how to deal with being targeted by UK Uncut. Bundles of public figures have come out in support of us, whilst Boris Johnson and Theresa May resorted to smears.
Think also of the hard won political victories which will, slowly but surely, bring about real political change. We have had MPs standing up for us in Parliament, signing early day motions and attempting to introduce tax reform. Our campaigning prompted the National Audit Office and the Treasury Select Committee to investigate dodgy tax dealings, investigations which now see Dave Hartnett up against the ropes and are forcing Revenue and Customs to re-think how they deal with corporate tax avoiders.
We still have a long way to go, a lot we can learn, and we will keep going together.
See you on the high streets!