Interview with UK Uncut
On August 9 2011, Linchpin spoke with Tim Matthews, a member and spokesperson of the anti-austerity group UK Uncut.
Linchpin: For some of our readers in Canada who may not be familiar with your organization, what is UK Uncut? How does your group organize?
Tim Matthews: UK Uncut began towards the end of 2010. The Liberal-Democrat/Conservative coalition government had come to power in the UK, and they put out an announcement in their comprehensive spending review that there was going to be over £80 billion worth of cuts to the public sector, to public sector jobs and services, over the next five years. So UK Uncut was formed by a group of friends who were really frustrated and angry at the government's position, the government's story about what was going on in the country and what needed to happen to the economy... because we really didn't think they were telling the whole story. We felt they were trying to pull the wool over people's eyes by saying that we needed to really cut back... to cut spending. That we couldn't afford public services and that there was no alternative – just as we'd heard in the 80's. And also that they weren't holding those who'd caused the crisis to account (i.e. primarily the banking and financial sector) and were even looking to raise the incomes of people and corporations who, if they were properly taxed, would be able to pay for more than we were having to pay for the crisis itself. UK Uncut therefore decided to begin, with its first action, to look at corporate tax holdings. So Vodafone... which didn't deal with the government to avoid £6 billion worth of tax. So the first actions were direct actions at Vodafone's flagship store on Oxford Street. And that was in late October... and then it kind of moved from there. The main tactic, which has been really successful, has been occupying chains of high-street stores, tax avoiders and banks to draw attention to these issues.
Linchpin: How have these actions been received by the general public in the UK?
TM: Well, it has been really interesting and inspiring and exciting that they've been so warmly received and have really got a lot of positive attention from loads of different sectors of society. Lots of different people getting involved. It started off, like I said, with a group of friends who had been involved in activism before, had been involved in organizing and progressive politics. And they did that one action and then it kind of spiralled and snowballed from there. That kind of example... just showing that you can do something that isn't just about going on a march – as important as that is – but that you can actually take direct action on your high street or in your community, and you know... make a story. Make a case that we don't need these cuts and that we can target those people who are really responsible, or who really should be responsible for contributing fairly to society, if we have this idea of this big society... and people really bought into that message. They could clearly see that kind of example of people cheating their way out of paying towards resolving the crisis who make billions of pounds of profit every year from the system.. they weren't part of the big society. They weren't paying their fair wage. So people clearly saw the truth of that message, and the way that we conducted ourselves during the demonstrations – in a very inclusive, creative, fun kind of way that everyone could get involved with. So we've had lots of families involved, lots of kids, pensioners – you name it. Everyone and anyone could get involved... and that's really important.
Linchpin: Have you faced much repression from the British authorities?
TM: Yeah, I mean obviously it kind of began to ramp up after we had our first successes. And that's a testament to the effectiveness of our tactics, and their appeal. That we started to worry the powers that be... the establishment. We started to have an impact, so you gradually saw rising police numbers, rising attention and condemnation from the right-wing press and from people who were just against the idea of anyone taking action to defend themselves and their communities. Then there were instances, earlier this year, of police using heavy-handed tactics. Starting to arrest people who were just demonstrating very peacefully, just using civil disobedience tactics like sitting down in a store, or blocking the entrance. Someone at a demonstration I was near got pepper-sprayed by a policeman -- who also accidentally pepper-sprayed himself. And then there were people who have been arrested for putting bits of cardboard in an automatic door, that kind of thing. It culminated at the Trade Union Congress march in March, when police arrested 145 activists connected with a UK Uncut occupation of Fortnum & Masons – a large department store in Central London. The police Chief Inspector was at the scene, actually inside the shop and told the activists there that since they were acting in a peaceful and sensible manner that they would be allowed to leave the store and be taken off into what she described as a “stable and sterile” environment. But actually, she was lying to the protestors and they were all arrested... mostly with charges of “aggravated trespass”. So this seemed to be an example of political policing, to deter people from going to our protests, because we've been effective – showing up the authorities and also showing that we could get around the police. But since then the vast majority of those people have been acquitted and there's only thirty that the police are seeking, so far, to prosecute. So we hope that they will also be acquitted over the next month.
Linchpin: I understand that there was a spokespersons for one of the police departments that essentially admitted that it was primarily an intelligence gathering exercise?
TM: Yeah, I heard that. I can't remember her name, but that was definitely one of their motivations. Most of the people they're pursuing charges against are people they think are the ringleaders. Because they were carrying flags with our logo on it... and also other materials, like flyers. They think they're the main ringleaders, so they want to hold them and you know, rinse them for evidence and so on and so forth. Which is just outrageous and stupid and ridiculous, and really fails to understand the non-hierarchical nature of our organization.
Linchpin: 2010 saw pretty massive student mobilizations against proposed tuition increases, which culminated in the massive protests dubbed “Day X”. Where has the energy from this movement gone? Is there a relationship between UK Uncut and this broader student movement?
TM: Well yeah, I do think that there's a connection. I've only just recently graduated myself. When you're in university, happily, people still have the time, the energy and the motivation to get involved in politics. Obviously that's something that the establishment is not necessarily that pleased about. That may be one of the reasons that they want to narrow people's opportunities in universities by making it so prohibitive for people to afford to go there. But yeah, I think there's a general culture of insecurity... of not knowing where you're going to go, what opportunities you'll have when you leave university. Because obviously the university numbers have increased, yet the opportunities when you come out have reduced. You get this massive promise and often very good education, and you feel that you don't have the opportunity to really use your skills or knowledge when you get out of university... and it's very frustrating. And a lot of people involved in the student movement and UK Uncut are often very well educated, very politically conscious people who are now using their knowledge in occupations. For example, the University College of London occupation... they're using their technical skills that they've learned at school, and with each other and at universities. They're using their skills to organize now, because they've realized the way to build an alternative is not necessarily to go through the system and get a McJob, or whatever. They're using their skills in a different way... in a much more collaborative way, based on solidarity. They're also learning the mistakes of past protests and past political movements, whether it be Stop the War – which I was involved in – or some of the climate justice movements. And so you're seeing different movements coming together... but it's all obviously based on anger. Anger at the political establishment... and the need for creative energy to create a new kind of movement. And I think a lot of people share that feeling. It's a very exciting time to be involved in activism. There's a lot of opportunities out there.
Linchpin: What role have anarchists played in some of these movements?
TM: It depends on your definition of what anarchism is, I suppose. Obviously other people in the movement would have a different perspectives. Personally, my political education has definitely been massively influenced and benefited from reading libertarian socialist or anarchist thought. But overall I think the most important influence has come from the nature of anarchist organizing... and the idea of non-hierarchical movements. The benefits of this type of organizing are massive. It allows you to organize very quickly, very fluidly... to reach inclusive decisions through consensus decision making. It allows you to include lots of different movements around the country who organize along similar lines and integrate with each other. And it's also a much more fair, inclusive and democratic way of organizing – a very principled way of organizing. People feel very empowered by it, and included in it. And I think that's very important. And also, once you've established that, you can move on to the next important thing, which is the notion of direct action that has also been very important in anarchist thought and anarchist movements. I don't think ordinary citizens understand how important anarchist thought has been in establishing some of the institutions we rely on in society today... like the National Health Service, or even other kinds of volunteerist cooperative organizations that are not run for profit, but for the benefit of society and for each other. They are run along lines that have been influenced by people who would call themselves libertarian socialists – or at least who were sympathetic to anarchism. So that's what I mean by anarchism – the very creative, cooperative, community-based type of anarchism that's really great. Not necessarily the other kind of... the media-type of anarchism. The way that anarchists are likely to be portrayed in the media.... as people who throw Molotov cocktails or other things like that. I think the main history of anarchism is about collective organizing and direct action, and that kind of thing. And I think that's very important to help our movements today.
Linchpin: Over the past year much of the left in Europe has shifted its energy towards anti-austerity organizing. Has there been much communication between groups in different countries? Have any of the struggles in other countries influenced events in the UK?
TM: We do think about this issue quite a lot, obviously, because we watch the news like everyone else. We see the struggles of people in Greece, and in Spain, and in North Africa – in Egypt and Tunisia and the Arab Spring – and also in America itself.. you look at Wisconsin for example. And it's really important, because it makes you see that we share common struggles... as working people, as intellectuals, as organizers, as members of communities. And to some degree, the way that the ruling class organizes internationally, we have a common foe. So eventually we probably will have to organize internationally to defeat it. But that kind of thing has to grow organically, because obviously we have a big foe at home to deal with domestically. And you have to organize at home first before you start looking at the bigger picture. But we do have contacts. We've seen the US Uncut develop, which has been great. They've become very successful targeting GE, Bank of America and Apple – tax avoiders like that. And you've seen France Uncut, and other types of Uncut movements growing elsewhere. I went to a conference in Rome earlier this year with lots of student organizers. A group called Unicommon... they're really great. Very inspiring activists in Italy. Really very politically savvy, very politically aware and extremely well organized. They drew together people from Germany, Austria, Spain... and also Tunisia. We really like to share common stories and thinking about how we can take our struggles forward – and I think that the first thing to do is keep talking and sharing information and then thinking, you know, what can we do? How can we move this forward? There is going to be a common day of action, as far as I understand it, in Europe on October 15. I'm not sure yet how we're going to take part in that. I think it would be good if we did... I don't know if we are. But we are beginning to talk and organize with other countries and hopefully that will develop and lead somewhere. I really hope so.