Compared to the Egyptian revolution’s extraordinary toppling of the dictator Mubarak, the people’s occupation of the country’s public spaces, the workers’ strikes and the array of emotions pouring forth (everything from anger to exhilaration), Britain appears to be in a state of denial, despite the fact that revolutionary impulses may well be the only valid response to the coalition government’s unprecedented assault on almost every aspect of British society — hard-pressed middle class and working class people, students, schoolchildren, the working poor, the unemployed and the disabled; everyone, in fact, except the rich and the super-rich.
Driven by a repulsive ideological desire to smash the British state, and to privatize whatever was not privatized under Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the coalition’s leading incompetents — David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg, aided by stooges like Vince Cable and Danny Alexander — are ferociously pursuing the biggest ever hatchet job on the British state on the basis of economic necessity, counting on the sloth and indifference of the public to disguise their true intentions, and to prevent anyone from scrutinizing how those responsible for the financial crisis — the banking sector, and the corporations committed to wholesale tax avoidance — are not being held accountable. What makes this even more alarming is the fact that the government does not even have an effective mandate for its cuts, with neither party having won a majority, and both having either lied about their plans or omitted to mention them entirely on the campaign trail last spring.
Last October, when George Osborne announced the government’s comprehensive spending review, gleefully cutting £81 bn of spending over the next four years, students, schoolchildren and university staff immediately responded to plans to triple tuition fees, to withdraw 100 percent funding from arts, humanities and social science courses, and to scrap the Education Maintanance Allowance for sixth-formers from poorer backgrounds by taking to the streets in numbers not seen since the last Conservative government — with the exception of the protest aganst the Iraq War in February 2003, which was by far and away the biggest protest in British history. When the measures were approved by Parliament in December, protestors — even those who were too young to remember — suddenly recalled the Poll Tax Riot of 1990, which helped to bring about Thatcher’s downfall, and was a shining example of hideous legislation that was abandoned through popular protest.
This year, however, the impetus established by the students and schoolchildren appears to be in danger of disappearing, even though there are countless reasons for the British people to come together in unprecedented numbers to fight the ongoing — and rapid — destruction of the state. Instead of occupying Parliament Square and calling for widespread strikes and walkouts, for example, the huge wave of job losses precipitated by the cuts is largely mentioned only in furtive, whispered conversations, as though it is somehow embarrassing to be complaining about a government that, despite its claims, has no idea whatsoever about how to create new employment to compensate for the loss of revenue and increased expenditure resulting from hundreds of thousands more unemployed people, which may well tip the country into further economic decline.
All over the country, people involved in charities, arts projects, youth projects, community projects, and other frontline projects dealing with the poor and disadvantaged are facing the axe. ConneXions, the project that helps motivate young people who might otherwise fall out of the system entirely, is facing huge cuts as careers advice and support is particularly hard hit, the Citizens Advice Bureaux issued 900 redundancy notices on January 27, hundreds of Sure Start children’s centres face closure this year and staff at 1,000 centres have been warned about the threat of redundancy, and even the Police are not immune, with 20,000 job losses expected over the next two years.
As I explain in a separate article to follow, plans to privatize the NHS by stealth also involve axing ten percent of the workforce — at least 100,000 people — despite government promises to protect the NHS, and on January 27, as Liverpool City Council announced 1,500 council job losses, the GMB, Britain’s General Union, which has over 600,000 members — mainly manual workers in local government and the health service — warned that the losses announced in Liverpool brought the number of job losses to 145,842 in 212 councils and authorities – or 25 percent of the union’s total membership. A week later, Manchester City Council announced 2,000 job losses, and on Friday Birmingham City Council announced 7,000 job losses. On February 2, the GMB updated its estimates, describing 150,059 job losses at 260 councils, and warning that it was still waiting for notification of job losses “from 137 smaller shire district councils in England, from 22 larger councils in England (9 London Boroughs, 2 Met Boroughs, 2 Shire Counties and 8 Unitary Authorities), 21 councils in Scotland,18 in Wales and 44-plus other authorities.” For anyone wanting to keep track of the losses, UNISON, the biggest public sector trade union with more than 1.3 million members, has a dossier, “Con-Demned Jobs,” analyzing job losses by region and work sector, which is available here.
With all this misery, it is, in some ways, astonishing that a major protest movement has not yet emerged to fight back, but in a country that — like so many countries in the West — has seen all sense of community and solidarity steadily atomized over the last 30 years, it is perhaps not surprising. The trade unions, whose members are particularly affected by the government’s butchery of jobs, have recently been discussing coordinated strikes — something not really seen since the darkest days of Margaret Thatcher — but they appear to be focusing primarily on hopes of bringing together a huge number of people for their “March for the Alternative: Jobs, Growth, Justice,” a day of action in London on March 26.
This rally and march will hopefully see all kinds of different groups and individuals uniting for the first time, and creating viable new networks for protest and action, but I must admit that, when it comes to tackling the government’s hypocrisy, stupidity and cruelty head-on, the most dynamic protest group to have emerged in the wake of the financial crisis, and the cynical manoeuvring of the coalition government, is UK Uncut, “the country’s fastest growing protest movement,” according to an article in the Guardian on Thursday.
Analysts love how the movement, which started in a London pub last October, with a group of friends looking for creative ways to protest about tax evasion by Vodaphone, has taken off through social networking sites, and through the appeal of its occupations of the retail outlets of major tax avoiders — beginning with Vodaphone (also see here), and moving on to Philip Green’s Arcadia empire (Topshop, BHS, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge), Boots (where the police used CS spray on protestors), Tesco, Walkers Crisps and Cadbury’s, Barclays, Lloyds and HSBC. However, while creative dissent is always a powerful tool — especially when it involves elements of theatre and ridicule, as has particularly been demonstrated by counter-cultural movements from the 1960s onwards — UK Uncut’s primary strength is its message. This, for example, is the group’s response to the government’s claims that “The cuts are necessary, there is no alternative”:
We are told that it is vital to reduce the deficit, and that the only way of doing this is to cut public spending. This is certainly not the case. There are alternatives, but the government chooses to ignore them, highlighting the fact that the cuts are based on ideology, not necessity.
- One alternative is to clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and the rich, estimated to cost the state £95bn a year
- Another is to make the banks pay for a crisis they created: last year they paid out over £7bn in bonuses and just four banks made £24bn in profit
The tax avoided and evaded in a single year could pay for the £81bn, four-year cuts programme.
And this is their response to the claim that “The cuts are fair, we are all in this together”:
Since the banking crisis:
- average pay of FTSE 100 directors has risen 55%,
- corporation tax has been cut,
- the government have not delivered on a manifesto pledge to clamp down on tax avoidance, instead cutting staff at HMRC,
- bank profits and bonuses are back in the many billions,
- there has been no reform of the banks.
David Cameron himself has said that the cuts will change Britain’s “whole way of life”. Every aspect of what was fought for by generations seems under threat – from selling off the forests, privatising health provision, closing the libraries and swimming pools, to scrapping rural bus routes. What Cameron doesn’t say is that the cuts will also disproportionately hit the poor and vulnerable, with cuts to housing benefit, disability living allowance, the childcare element of working tax credits, EMA, the Every Child a Reader programme, Sure Start and the Future Jobs Fund to name a few.
The facts speak for themselves; we are not all in this together, we are paying for the folly of reckless bankers whilst the rich profit.
The government are forced to claim that the cuts are necessary as they know that people would never accept them otherwise. By repeating the same lies over and over again, they hope to brainwash people into inaction.
There are alternatives to the cuts, and we are not all in this together. But unless we take action, and take the facts to our friends, our families and those around us, they will get away with it.
If you haven’t yet come across UK Uncut, I do urge you to check out their website, and get involved. After causing the temporary closure of more than 100 branches of tax-evading high street stores in the last five months, the group is staging its first national day of action against UK banks on February 19, combining, as ever, theatrical creativity with its hard-hitting Robin Hood-style message about the urgent need for wealth redistribution to save the many from suffering to enrich the few. As the Guardian reported on Thursday:
“The idea this time is not to shut these places down but to open up high street banks, occupying them and using them for things that may be more useful for the community,” said Daniel Garvin from the group.
He and other protesters have mobilised thousands of activists using the Twitter hashtag #UKuncut since the group was formed in October.
The protests, which come as banks reveal multimillion-pound bonus packages over the next few weeks, will involve a range of peaceful — and creative — direct actions.
“If libraries are being closed in their area, people may decide to stage a read-in in the bank,” said Garvin.
“The housing benefit cap means people are losing their homes, so some groups may opt for a sleep-in. Theatres are being shut, so others have talked about staging a play.
“Health provision is being cut, so what about setting up a walk-in clinic? Education funding is being savaged so how about holding a lecture series?”
Garvin said one local group concerned that a swimming pool was under threat was going to set up a paddling pool in a local bank.
A video about UK Uncut, produced for the Guardian, is below:
Note: Also see this article about Take VAT, a “UK Uncut-esque” action group, which was formed last month to raise awareness of companies that avoid paying VAT, and which was holding its first protests in London and Leeds on Saturday February 12.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
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