How to Build a Progressive Tea Party
Imagine a parallel universe where the Great Crash of 2008 was followed by a Tea Party of a very different kind. Enraged citizens gather in every city, week after week—to demand the government finally regulate the behavior of corporations and the superrich, and force them to start paying taxes. The protesters shut down the shops and offices of the companies that have most aggressively ripped off the country. The swelling movement is made up of everyone from teenagers to pensioners. They surround branches of the banks that caused this crash and force them to close, with banners saying, You Caused This Crisis. Now YOU Pay.
As people see their fellow citizens acting in self-defense, these tax-the-rich protests spread to even the most conservative parts of the country. It becomes the most-discussed subject on Twitter. Even right-wing media outlets, sensing a startling effect on the public mood, begin to praise the uprising, and dig up damning facts on the tax dodgers.
Instead of the fake populism of the Tea Party, there is a movement based on real populism. It shows that there is an alternative to making the poor and the middle class pay for a crisis caused by the rich. It shifts the national conversation. Instead of letting the government cut our services and increase our taxes, the people demand that it cut the endless and lavish aid for the rich and make them pay the massive sums they dodge in taxes.
This may sound like a fantasy—but it has all happened. The name of this parallel universe is Britain. As recently as this past fall, people here were asking the same questions liberal Americans have been glumly contemplating: Why is everyone being so passive? Why are we letting ourselves be ripped off? Why are people staying in their homes watching their flat-screens while our politicians strip away services so they can fatten the superrich even more?
And then twelve ordinary citizens—a nurse, a firefighter, a student, a TV researcher and others—met in a pub in London one night and realized they were asking the wrong questions. “We had spent all this energy asking why it wasn’t happening,” says Tom Philips, a 23-year-old nurse who was there that night, “and then we suddenly said, That’s what everybody else is saying too. Why don’t we just do it? Why don’t we just start? If we do it, maybe everybody will stop asking why it isn’t happening and join in. It’s a bit like that Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams. We thought, If you build it, they will come.”
The new Conservative-led government in Britain is imposing the most extreme cuts to public spending the country has seen since the 1920s. The fees for going to university are set to triple. Children’s hospitals like Great Ormond Street are facing 20 percent cuts in their budgets. In London alone, more than 200,000 people are being forced out of their homes and out of the city as the government takes away their housing subsidies.
Amid all these figures, this group of friends made some startling observations. Here’s one. All the cuts in housing subsidies, driving all those people out of their homes, are part of a package of cuts to the poor, adding up to £7 billion. Yet the magazine Private Eye reported that one company alone—Vodafone, one of Britain’s leading cellphone firms—owed an outstanding bill of £6 billion to the British taxpayers. According to Private Eye, Vodaphone had been refusing to pay for years, claiming that a crucial part of its business ran through a post office box in ultra-low-tax Luxembourg. The last Labour government, for all its many flaws, had insisted it pay up.
But when the Conservatives came to power, David Hartnett, head of the British equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, apologized to rich people for being “too black and white about the law.” Soon after, Vodafone’s bill was reported to be largely canceled, with just over £1 billion paid in the end. Days later George Osborne, the finance minister, was urging people to invest in Vodafone by taking representatives of the company with him on a taxpayer-funded trip to India—a country where that company is also being pursued for unpaid taxes. Vodafone and Hartnett deny this account, claiming it was simply a longstanding “dispute” over fees that ended with the company paying the correct amount. The government has been forced under pressure to order the independent National Audit Office to investigate the affair and to pore over every detail of the corporation’s tax deal.
“It was clear to us that if this one company had been made to pay its taxes, almost all these people could have been kept from being forced out of their homes,” says Sam Greene, another of the protesters. “We keep being told there’s no alternative to cutting services. This just showed it was rubbish. So we decided we had to do something.”
They resolved to set up an initial protest that would prick people’s attention. They called themselves UK Uncut and asked several liberal-left journalists, on Twitter (full disclosure: I was one of them), to announce a time and place where people could meet “to take direct action protest against the cuts and show there’s an alternative.” People were urged to gather at 9:30 am on a Wednesday morning outside the Ritz hotel in central London and look for an orange umbrella. More than sixty people arrived, and they went to one of the busiest Vodafone stores—on Oxford Street, the city’s biggest shopping area—and sat down in front of it so nobody could get in.
“What really struck me is that when we explained our reasons, ordinary people walking down Oxford Street were incredibly supportive,” says Alex Miller, a 31-year-old nurse. “People would stop and tell us how they were terrified of losing their homes and their jobs—and when they heard that virtually none of it had to happen if only these massive companies paid their taxes, they were furious. Several people stopped what they were doing, sat down and joined us. I guess it’s at that point that I realized this was going to really take off.”
That first protest grabbed a little media attention—and then the next day, in a different city, three other Vodafone stores were shut down in the northern city of Leeds, by unconnected protests. UK Uncut realized this could be replicated across the country. So the group set up a Twitter account and a website, where members announced there would be a national day of protest the following Saturday. They urged anybody who wanted to organize a protest to e-mail them so it could be added to a Google map. Britain’s most prominent tweeters, such as actor Stephen Fry, joined in.
That Saturday Vodafone’s stores were shut down across the country by peaceful sit-ins. The crowds sang songs and announced they had come as volunteer tax collectors. Prime Minister David Cameron wants axed government services to be replaced by a “Big Society,” in which volunteers do the jobs instead. So UK Uncut announced it was the Big Society Tax Collection Agency.
The mix of people who turned out was remarkable. There were 16-year-olds from the housing projects who had just had their £30-a-week subsidy for school taken away. There were 78-year-olds facing the closure of senior centers where they can meet their friends and socialize. A chuckling 64-year-old woman named Mary James said, “The scare stories will say this protest is being hijacked by anarchists. If anything, it’s being hijacked by pensioners!” They stopped passers-by to explain why they were protesting by asking, “Sir, do you pay your taxes? So do I. Did you know that Vodafone doesn’t?”
The police looked on, bemused. There wasn’t much they could do: in a few places, they surrounded the Vodafone stores before the protesters arrived, stopping anyone from going in or out—in effect doing the protesters’ job for them. One police officer asked me how this tax dodge had been allowed to happen, and when I explained, he said, “So you mean I’m likely to lose my job because these people won’t pay up?”
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UK Uncut organized entirely on Twitter, asking what it should do next and taking votes. There was an embarrassment of potential targets: the National Audit Office found in 2007 that a third of the country’s top 700 corporations paid no tax at all. UK Uncut decided to expose and protest one of the most egregious alleged tax dodgers: Sir Philip Green. He is the ninth-richest man in the country, running some of the leading High Street chain stores, including Topshop, Miss Selfridge and British Home Stores. Although he lives and works in Britain, and his companies all operate on British streets, he avoids British taxes by claiming his income is “really” earned by his wife, who lives in the tax haven of Monaco. In 2005 the BBC calculated that he earned £1.2 billion and paid nothing in taxes—dodging more than £300 million in taxes.
Far from objecting, Cameron’s government appointed Green as an official adviser, with special responsibility for “cutting waste.” So UK Uncut drew a direct line from Green’s tax exemption to the cuts in services for ordinary people. For example, Cameron had just announced the closure of the school sports partnership, which makes it possible for millions of schoolchildren to engage in healthy, competitive exercise. The protesters pointed out that if Green was made to pay taxes, the entire program could be saved, with more than £120 million left as small change. So they declared a day of action.
At the London protests against Green, everybody was asked to turn up at the largest branch of Topshop—again on Oxford Street—and mill around like ordinary shoppers. Once a whistle was blown, they were to start chanting, put on sports clothing to dramatize what was being taken away from schoolchildren and sit down by the counters to stop sales. It was the Saturday before Christmas. There was a strange frisson as everyone turned up and looked around. It was impossible to tell who was a shopper and who was a protester: they looked the same. The whistle blew—and they shut down one of the largest retail stores in Europe.
Across Britain, the same thing was happening. Even in Tunbridge Wells—a town synonymous with ultraconservatism—the Vodafone store was blockaded. Again, many people spontaneously joined in. The protests were all over that evening’s TV news. It was the most-read story on the websites of the BBC and the country’s most-read newspaper, the Daily Mail. The prime-time Channel 4 News reported, “A more eloquent and informed group of demonstrators would be hard to come across and one is struck by the wide appeal across ages and incomes, of what they had to say.” The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have shown how social media can be used to conduct the unfocused rage of a scattered population and harden it into a weapon. UK Uncut shows the same tactics can be used in a democracy—and there is the same need. Unemployment in the United States is at the same level as in Egypt before the uprising: 9 percent.
The UK Uncut message was simple: if you want to sell in our country, you pay our taxes. They are the membership fee for a civilized society. Most of the protesters I spoke with had never attended a demonstration before, but were driven to act by the rising unemployment, insecurity and austerity that are being outpaced only by rising rewards for the superrich. Ellie Mae O’Hagan, a 25-year-old office worker in Liverpool, one of the most economically depressed places in the country, said she was “absolutely outraged to discover that I was paying more than Philip Green in taxes.” She added, “I could see what all the cuts were doing. My brother had been made redundant, loads of my friends were unemployed and I could see it all getting worse, while these bankers get even bigger bonuses. And I thought, Right, you’ve got to do something. So I e-mailed UK Uncut to ask if there was a protest happening in Liverpool. They said, Not yet, so you organize one. So I spent forty-eight hours arranging one. And a hundred people turned up—an amazing mixture of people, who I had never met, and who didn’t know each other—and we shut down both Vodafone stores. Suddenly, it felt like we weren’t passive anymore. We were standing up for ourselves.”