“Excuse me sir, would you like to know why we’re here today?”
This was my mantra on Saturday the 28th as I took to the streets with the UK UnCut Edinbugh branch and other concerned citizens. Together we waged a war of information against corporate tax avoiders by peacefully protesting in/in front of stores such as Vodafone and BHS and organising some hilarious theatre inside Boots where Officers of Big Society Revenue and Customs arrested an activist, pretending to be the owner of Boots, for tax avoidance. As the ‘owner’ of Boots was quick to point out to the arresting officers: “I’ve done nothing wrong! Well, it may be wrong, but it isn’t illegal!”
The emphasis of the day was to raise public awareness of tax avoidance and the harm it causes not only to the country but to us all individually. This was done through banners, flyers and megaphones, but the most successful method by far was simply talking to people. We found that there is a huge amount of support, regardless of people’s own political beliefs, for our message that companies should pay what they owe in tax just like everyone else.
As indeed there should be.
The tax burden on companies has fallen year on year for the past decade, whilst the tax burden on individuals has risen.
We are literally paying for their tax avoidance.
Over the course of the day I spoke to a large number of people from many different backgrounds and with many different views on the cuts. I spoke to some of those directly facing the cuts – the disabled, nurses and even a doctor – who were quick to give us their support, as well they might knowing the true injustice of the ConDem cuts.
However, it was even more interesting to speak to those on the other side of the debate, specifically a chartered accountant who I suspect may have had the words “Atlas shrugged” tattooed over his heart. While we disagreed over the cuts the public sector is facing, even he could get behind our message of eliminating corporate tax avoidance that uses backhanded loopholes and tax havens to defraud the public. As he himself said: “If I believed ideologically that companies should pay less tax, that them doing so is good for the country as a whole, which I do, then the only proper way to make that happen is to bring it up in Parliament and have a proper debate. Lowering their effective tax rate through loopholes and tax havens is dishonest and subverts democracy.”
Ultimately, that is what is so powerful about UK UnCut’s message. No matter what your political stripe, it’s easy to see that a system which allows some of our wealthiest citizens to dodge hundreds of millions of pounds in tax each year, through stealth tax breaks, whilst the rest of the country faces austerity cuts to fix our deficit is wrong.
And once you start questioning a single aspect of the cuts, it’s difficult to stop.
Sadly, a fun day of chatting to passers-by and and spreading the bad news was marred near the end by the arrest of two of my fellow protesters. Having had a significant police escort during the previous three hours of our protest (I personally had a two officer escort while walking down the street on the way to Vodafone) the police suddenly decided that they had had enough. Using what I would describe as a reasonable amount of force they began pushing several protesters, who had been stood just outside the front door of BHS for half an hour with a banner, out onto the pavement.
From where I was standing, and witness statements taken later on agree with me, one officer was clearly worked up and then pushed one of the female protesters to the ground and then jerked her arm up behind her back to handcuff her. This obviously caused her a lot of distress and pain and I vividly remember that she was led away in tears.
Given that our protest had been entirely peaceful and was clearly going to remain that way, I found this both unreasonably brutal and unnecessary, as did a number of passers-by. I hope P.C. A4636 feels remorse for his violent conduct, but I would like to stress that the police officers were highly professional during our protest, with two even giving me hugs, though I disagree with the grounds on which my fellow protesters were arrested and think that they have a case for wrongful arrest.
Afterwards followed a four hour long demonstration outside St. Leonard’s Police station (with varying amounts of attendees and energy) which eventually saw the release of our fellow UnCutters who were charged with breach of the peace.
Ultimately, the intimidation tactics being used by the police are simply not going to work. As we have seen, twice as many people turned up for our latest action after the police arrested Bright Green co-editor Alasdair Thompson at the protest before.
We will continue spreading the bad news and we will continue to do so through legal and peaceful means. Corporate tax avoidance is theft from those of us who don’t have special loopholes built into our tax code, or a house out in Monaco.
The number of people angry about it is growing.