There has been much written in the rightwing media about UK Uncut and people who participate in their events. They have been tagged as terrorists, likened to al Qaeda and the IRA at various times, but the truth is more worrying for the powers that be.

As a form of protest, ‘uncutting’ is unique, unpredictable and entertaining. In Sheffield we have a growing uncutting scene, bringing in people from right across the political spectrum, all of them linked by one theme – the unfairness of the current system. We’ve turned banks and stores into classrooms, into public libraries and hospital wards. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

The current financial situation faced by the country and the wider world is a real issue, but the government’s plan to make the poor pay and allow the rich to avoid paying is a fundamental flaw. My personal opinion is that they are using the need for ‘austerity’ as a justification and in some cases magnifying and reinforcing the inequalities in our society. George Osborne says “We’re all in it together”, but it’s clear that some of us are more in it than others.

Uncut is a fluid organisation. It has no leaders, no followers and no direct political affiliations, which makes it impossible for the authorities to clamp down on it. As an entity, Uncut exists because people believe in it – believe that the current unfairness should not be allowed to continue and seek to raise awareness of this. Its mission is to expose the wrongdoings of private companies in the UK and beyond and apply pressure to encourage them to mend their ways. It could be a long, drawn-out campaign. They have been allowed to get away with it for too long with the appeasement and co-operation of politicians and the media. The recent high-profile action at Fortnum and Mason in London and the outrageous reaction of the police and its high-profile Tory Party customers shows that Uncut is beginning to rattle the cages of the ruling classes.

There is nothing like the feeling of empowerment and liberation when, after sneaking into a target shop like some sort of retail undercover agent, you reveal yourself to the fellow shoppers, Uncutters and store staff. The more visual the display, the better. I suppose it’s become a bit of a hobby. Some people go to football, some go to the pub. I prefer to protest against tax avoidance on the high street. Each to their own.

Uncutting has only really been around since last autumn. We’ve had some great successes against some of the leading high street culprits, but this comes at a price – your face gets known and thus makes the challenge even greater. After all, it is a game of cat-and-mouse and the more shops attempt to stifle protest, the more determined we are to get the job done. The police were often a bit heavy-handed early on, but now they’ve mellowed. Perhaps individually they think we might be right but are reluctant to admit it publicly. They probably found it difficult to justify using riot shields against a group of carol singers.

Some people think I’m mad and that we will not make a difference – my wife included – but people shouldn’t judge until they’ve tried it. It is weirdly addictive and if it makes one company modify its tax responsibility for the good, it has been worth it.

I asked other uncutters why they did it and the answers were quite similar. The unfairness of the system, the need to do something about it and the excitement of protest all featured highly. At the end of the day these protests are peaceful, if sometimes a little rowdy. They are a form of visual performance art with a hard-hitting message underneath. They are family-friendly; we often get kids in prams and the older generations actively participating. No one is forced into doing anything they don’t feel comfortable with and we support people to take that initial plunge. Some choose to simply stand alongside and passively support what is going on. That is fine too.

We’re not vindictive or offensive, and when asked to leave stores and other venues we do so, normally to continue our protest outside. The fact that some shops choose to close as a result (or in anticipation) of our protests is a testament to their guilt. When the lights go off and the doors are closed, however temporarily, it is a sign that our message is getting through. Even the most stubborn and reluctant businesses will eventually do the right thing. That’s all we want.

One fellow uncutter said:

“The crunch moment for me came when I heard that Bob Diamond, CEO of Barclays, had received around £7 million in bonuses and the bank had paid less than 4% tax on its profits, despite its huge role in the economic crisis. It just summed up the situation we have now so clearly. That very morning I logged on and saw that there was some action taking place in Sheffield and I went down to Barclays in town. I don’t want the current situation, or worse, to exist for future generations.”

A good point.

Uncutting is getting bigger all the time and as fresh targets are uncovered the range of activities increases accordingly. Hopefully in the future, the government will clamp down on opportunities for organisations to avoid paying tax at the correct rate. It makes no sense. HMRC claim we need to make savings to reduce the debt (which I actually agree with), then at the same time allow companies to avoid paying into the UK coffers, money which could help clear the debt and allow services to be protected. The solution seems simple, so why don’t they just do it?

Search for ‘Sheffield Uncut’ on Facebook for local events and ‘Ukuncut’ for national events.

ukuncut.org.uk

Mick Ibbotson.