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UK Cut Loose

I used to be a leftie. The past tense is important; it does not denote a change to my values or beliefs, but it does denote a change of identity. Identity cannot be wholly negative. To have an identity, it is not enough to be against others. You have to be for something. The loss of my political identity has a simple root cause: I no longer know what the British left is for.

Take the example of UK Uncut, a… erm… a… ah… a… thingy that steadfastily avoids describing itself. Wikipedia pigeonholes them as:

a protest group started in October 2010 to protest against tax avoidance in the UK and to raise awareness about cuts to public services.

Protesting tax avoidance? Tax avoidance did not become a big political issue in October 2010. The big issue is that Labour lost the election in May 2010. Yes, they lost. Lefties should get over it instead of pretending it was some kind of draw and they were cheated out of office. Labour won by 800,000 votes in 2005, and got a huge majority. They won, pure and simple. The Tories won by 2.1 million votes in 2010, and had no majority. It beggars belief that some on the left argue that the absence of a majority means nobody won the 2010 election, because the people were evenly split. The people were less evenly split in 2010 than they were in 2005. That the Tory Government is making cuts to public spending is the real issue – and hence why the group refers to cuts in its name.

People have been avoiding tax for as long as there has been tax. One of the people targeted by UK Uncut’s campaign is Philip Green, a man who, pretty indisputably, dodged a lot of tax in 2005. 2005. Forgive me if I question why nobody felt the need to protest about Philip Green’s tax avoidance back in 2005, when it would have been more timely. Was it a coincidence that in 2005 there were no tax protests, and Labour won a significant majority by scoring 800,000 more votes than the Tories? I doubt it.

This leaves only one purpose for UK Uncut. The timing of their activities, and their anti-Tory rhetoric (near identical to that given by many a Labour politician) is sufficient to explain their purpose. The group opposes decisions made by the Tory government. There was a national vote, the government changed, some people are sore losers, they started UK Uncut. Tax avoidance of business or wealthy individuals is a smokescreen, affording protesters a softer and wider range of targets than the normal leftist protest choice: deface Churchill’s statue, jab a royal in the ribs, or lob a fire extinguisher at some policemen. The smokescreen works because it avoids confronting the real issues. There is no evidence that tax avoidance is any more or less than it was before. Indeed, we know it is less, because all those crooked MPs started paying Capital Gains Tax on their second homes. The reason for having UK Uncut can hence be prescribed. To use the words of Wikipedia, their purpose is to raise awareness of cuts to public services. But this is even more implausible than campaigning about tax avoidance. Is anyone unaware of the government’s plans to cut public services? Whose awareness needs to be raised?

If UK Uncut believes the UK tax system is too complicated, then I agree with them. I see no reason to have over-complicated tax systems that make it difficult to recover the amounts owed. I can also see that rules are rules and all rules ultimately come to a limit. Beyond that limit, you stop being able to tax people, unless you believe in some kind of Russian-style despotism, where tax rules can be conveniently reinterpreted by the authorities in order to grab money at will, or, as the Russians sometimes do, to put political opponents in prison.

And here is the nub of my argument, as much as I have one. The points I make here, meagre and unworthy as they are, are a lot more robust than the point of UK Uncut. UK Uncut is a protest movement which emphasizes decentralized action by anybody anywhere just to avoid the harder task of somebody stating what they actually want to achieve. Do they want more tax to be paid? Yes. But tax avoidance is perfectly legal. Tax avoidance means doing things just so you pay less tax. It is exactly like the traffic avoidance I perform when I cross the road. I try to time when I walk, and to pace my walk, in order to avoid being hit by a car. I could intend to be run over, but instead I try to avoid making contact with the moving vehicles. By the same measure, people could aim to pay more tax, but generally they want to avoid doing so. Their motivation is perfectly straightforward and reasonable. We play games according to rules. If someone wins by exploiting a flaw in the rules, then change the rules instead of blaming the player.

Arguing against tax avoidance is like arguing that people should leave bigger tips when eating at a restaurant. Maybe they should, but there is a big difference between not tipping and not paying a bill. If the tax system is fair and works, and people pay tax according to the rules, then UK Uncut’s arguments must be hollow. If the tax system is unfair and does not work… oops. Better not mention that. Because the extraordinarily complicated tax system in the UK is in large measure the work of one man: Gordon Brown. During Brown’s long spell as Chancellor, and much shorter time as Primeminister, the book of tax laws doubled in thickness. Clearly that was not the result of a drive to simplify the tax system. So UK Uncut’s protests should have begun long ago. Before the General Election, the only protests about the obfuscation of the tax regime were those found in the letters column of Accountancy magazine.

As for arguing against cuts, that might have some resonance, if the alternative was clear. Like it or lump it, the Tories scored more votes in the 2010 election than they had for a long time. They did so arguing they would cut more than Labour. It does not really matter if they were going to make cuts only for ‘ideological’ reasons. Presumably that means Labour only spends money for ‘pragmatic’ reasons. Arguing against cuts, and ending the argument there, is like arguing for irresponsibility. Avoiding the connection to tax revenues, or to economic growth, or to borrowing, ensnares the protester in a childish complaint. Children sometimes get sweets by making a fuss, even though they had already spent their pocket money. But nobody believes they got the sweets thanks to a coherent and reasoned argument. The tactic was to fuss, to bully, to irritate, to annoy. And that is the role of UK Uncut. They undoubtedly believe their tactics are justified. The problem is, they have not gone to much trouble to justify themselves to anyone who was not convinced in the first place.

Consider the most vital revelation of UK Uncut, the finding that motivated their first protest and gave them momentum. They say that Vodafone saved £6bn from their tax bill. Presumably, UK Uncut intend to keep invading Vodafone shops until Vodafone voluntarily gives HMRC another £6bn. That is not much of a plan. If they really believe that Vodafone is run a by a group of greedy despicable people, they should check out the going rate for assassinating people in Nepal. For £6bn, if Vodafone really had no scruples, they could easily wipe out every active supporter of UK Uncut, and still have plenty of hush money for the cops. So what does UK Uncut want? Well, as stated above, it must be just to raise awareness. The problem is, they do not do that either. For all the awareness of Vodafone possibly slicing £6bn from their tax bill, I am totally unaware of how that number was calculated. I cannot find a proper explanation of where this £6bn figure has come from, neither on UK Uncut’s site, nor any site they reference, nor anywhere else. That is pretty depressing. UK Uncut is a movement that proudly uses the internet. Is it unreasonable to expect they give backing to their accusations?

I am an equal opportunities cynic. It suits my worldview to find liars and hypocrites amongst all political hues and all walks of life. If somebody tells me a fact that suits their argument, my instinct is to question it until the fact is proven, no matter the fact, no matter the argument, no matter who makes it. I looked for an explanation of the £6bn figure that Vodafone supposedly owed the taxman. It is not on the internet. If it was, I would have found it. And, if the argument is strong, UK Uncut would have every reason to help me find it. That I cannot find it tells me that the truth is inconvenient to them. Repeating the claim of a £6bn dodge is obviously far easier than presenting any facts to back it up.

Perhaps it is no surprise that UK Uncut does not plainly present facts. They never really explain who they are, how they are organized, and who pays for things. They can hardly be considered a model of transparency. Everything about them is shrouded in a romantic haze. Within this leftist mist, we are meant to believe that the good morals of good people can overcome the evil ruthlessness of a government or corporations, or even of a conspiracy involving both the government and the corporations. Well-meaning activism is presented as the greatest force known to man. You do not need to read much history to be aware of plenty of counter-examples. Just look at Libya right now, where the brave insurrection is being stifled by superior firepower.

In the midst of UK Uncut’s fuzziness, you can find out some things about them. For example, Jonnie Marbles, one of the founders of UK Uncut, is a comedian. I am not joking. Jonnie Marbles, in contrast to me, does joke. Unfortunately, he has that comic style where you can tell the joke has ended by the silence that follows it. Here is one video of Marbles being unfunny, here is another of Marbles just making you feel bad because he is so bad, and here is a website where he writes a lot of things, none of which are remotely funny, or interesting. One of the UK Uncut protests was described by the organizers as “a live stand-up comedy show”. Whatever your politics, if Jonnie Marbles is on the bill, you would be advised to give it a miss. I would gladly pay a tax to avoid listening to his routine. But returning to my argument, if I can find out all this, and plenty more, about the people behind the organization, then why can I not find any decent justification of the claims that Vodafone dodged £6bn? All I can find is a series of pointers to other people’s allegations, which eventually ends up with some allegations at Private Eye. I love Private Eye, but I do not expect them to be top tax investigators, and they satisfied my expectations. They also resort to pointing at someone else. This someone else, the buck’s last resting place, is Richard Brooks, an expert who has consistently and carefully avoided giving a clear explanation of what he thinks Vodafone should have paid, and why.

In their latest stunt, UK Uncut persuaded some sympathizers to help them deface a Vodafone website with UK Uncut’s propaganda. Yes, I meant to use the word ‘propaganda’. Let me show you why. This is an excerpt from their blog, hailing the success of their internet vandalism:

Despite Vodafone trying to brush off the allegations, the National Audit Office have recently opened an investigation into HMRC’s controversial tax settlements with the company [4]…

[4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/jan/19/national-audit-office-investigate-multinational-tax

Powerful stuff. Like they say, there is no smoke without fire, and this news that the NAO will investigate does seem to suggest that something went wrong with Vodafone’s tax bill. But like I said, I am an equal opportunities cynic, which is why I checked the source for this information – the Guardian. This is what they wrote:

The review would not rule on whether or not the Vodafone deal was a good one, an NAO spokesman stressed…

How do we interpret these two pieces of information? I would say the interpretation is pretty straightforward. The Guardian reported a story and UK Uncut lied about it, even though people could just go back to the source and read it themselves. Somebody in UK Uncut read a column in a newspaper that said NAO was not going to make a judgement about Vodafone’s specific settlement. The Guardian column does say that NAO are reviewing how tax settlements are reached in general. I interpret that to mean NAO will look at things in general, not at specific cases. Based on this, somebody in UK Uncut decided to misinform the world that NAO are specifically investigating the Vodafone deal. Part of the process for sharing this misinformation was to break the law by spreading the lies on one of Vodafone’s own websites. Does this make UK Uncut’s volunteers feel like proud fighters for social justice? It just makes me feel dirty. But it also illustrates the importance of checking facts. UK Uncut assumes its average follower is so lazy, or so partisan, that they will not check what few references they offer. If the British public has been lied to about tax, about cuts, and about the state of the economy, then it might help UK Uncut’s cause to stick to telling the truth, instead of resorting to spreading more lies.

Despite all I wrote, there is little doubt that UK Uncut is the best thing to come out of the British left for years. They are vigorous. They are interesting. They might have the common touch. But, in the end, identifying the best leftist protest movement of recent years is like identifying the best root vegetable at the village fête. Whatever the left does offer, you can guarantee it will be humdrum and hyped out of all proportion. Between Ken Livingstone and RMT strikes, the left has shown itself lacking in ideas for far too long than is healthy.

At present, the only thing holding the left together is their mutual antipathy of their enemies, by which they mean the Tories, corporations and the wealthy. UK Uncut is emblematic of the left’s malaise. It is the ultimate decentralized protest movement, that has even managed to defocus its purpose until it can no longer be identified. Opposition is not enough. To have an identity, you must offer something positive as well.

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