Andreas Whittam Smith: Is it wise to criminalise respectable protest groups?

Judge UK Uncut by its actions and its words. At a Boots store, its supporters dressed up as hospital doctors in protest against £20bn of cuts to the NHS

Related Topics

UK Uncut stirs up storms. Now it finds itself at the centre of one. More than 100 Uncut supporters face criminal charges following their occupation of the luxury food store, Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, London, on Saturday. They were protesting at what they consider to be the owners' unethical policy of minimising the tax that they pay on profits. I nearly wrote "members" of UK Uncut except that it doesn't have members as such. Nor does it have leaders. Think of it as a starfish. Don't ask where's the head and where's the tail. It's not that sort of organism.

It is utterly different in structure from the Trades Unions Congress (TUC), for instance, which, at the very same time that Fortnum & Mason was invaded, attracted hundreds of thousands of people to a rally in Hyde Park to hear speeches against reductions in public spending. UK Uncut was founded last year whereas the TUC began life in the 1860s. It has a president, a general secretary and well articulated policies. It does indeed have a head and a tail.

If Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, had been invited on to Newsnight on Monday evening, as was Lucy Annson, a spokesperson for UK Uncut, then he could have answered the questions to which Ms Annson declined to give a response: does UK Uncut condemn the violence? Mr Barber would have said of course we do etc, etc. Ms Annson held her nerve and spoke as if she was in a philosophy seminar, saying that the redoubtable Emily Maitlis' questions were improper in the sense that UK Uncut wasn't the sort of organisation where any one person could speak for the rest. It is genuinely leaderless.

This is by no means as outlandish as it first sounds. Who was the leader of the protests against university tuition fees? Was anybody in charge? No single person or organising committee has been identified. It was a spontaneous combustion brought about by locally organised protest movements. Or, to take another case, who exactly is the leader of the Libyan rebels? The Western powers have had a hard time finding out. Diplomats have been sent to Benghazi to ask who's the boss. The same difficulty would have been encountered in Cairo's Tahrir Square or in Tunis. The Tunisian pro-democracy movement began when Mohamed Bouazizi, a student who was selling fruits and vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, had his vendor cart confiscated by the police for not having the appropriate permits. His complaint to the local authority was rejected. Distraught, he left a Facebook message to his mother begging for her forgiveness, bought a can of petrol, doused himself in front of a government building and set himself on fire. That suicide and that Facebook message sparked the Tunisian rebellion.

UK Uncut's birth was similar though, thankfully, less tragic. On 27 October, a week after the Government announced its public spending cuts, a group of 70 young people ran along Oxford Street in London, entered the big Vodafone store, and sat down in the doorway. They were protesting at what they believe to be Vodafone's tax-dodging – a charge the company denies. They handed out leaflets and chanted. They had dreamed up their name only the evening before. The tag was endlessly repeated on the internet and in no time had gone viral. Now, just a brief five months later, some of these young people, or others like them, are facing criminal charges.

UK Uncut has a relatively novel structure, but one should judge it by its actions and by its words. What it did on Saturday was typical of how it operates. At a Boots store, supporters dressed up as doctors to transform the shop into an NHS hospital in protest at the £20bn cuts to the NHS. Outside Philip Green's BHS store on Oxford Street (accused of tax avoidance) actors and musicians protested against arts cuts with Sam and Timothy West performing a high-street staging of an extract from The Voysey Inheritance by Granville-Barker.

As for its words, go to its website ( There you will find a statement of purpose. It wants to "ensure government and big business do not get away with making ordinary people pay for a crisis they did not cause. It was the greed and recklessness of the banks that caused the economic crisis, yet the government is making ordinary people pay the price in the form of unprecedented cuts to public services. There are alternatives to the cuts, for example, making the banks pay for a crisis they created and stopping tax dodging by corporations and the rich." I agree with the diagnosis but not with the alternative policy. Its recommendation would scarcely touch Britain's debt crisis. But in a way that doesn't matter. The point is that the UK Uncut stance is perfectly respectable.

All the same, UK Uncut now faces a daunting future. It will have to evaluate the results of the criminal charges brought against supporters for the Fortnum & Mason occupation. In any case, the possibility of ending up in court will deter substantial numbers of people who might otherwise have wished to organise protests under its auspices. But if it truly is a starfish organisation, then it should be able to grow new limbs to replace the old. When one rebel is shot in Libya, a replacement steps forward.

UK Uncut must also urgently add something to its words. It has to make clear that it rejects violence. It should habitually describe itself as the "non-violent protest movement" or, better still, as "the peaceful protest movement". Meanwhile, intelligent policing that goes after the violent troublemakers, while finding a modus vivendi with peaceful if unconventional demonstrations, is required. This week's arrests of Uncut supporters may not have been wise in this respect. For at the same time only 11 people were charged for the more violent protests elsewhere in the capital, including serious disturbances in the West End during which police were pelted with ammonia-filled light bulbs.

It may be that UK Uncut will not survive this crisis. But if that happens, its supporters should not despair. Everywhere we look, at home and abroad, we see spontaneous protest, most of it peaceful. If this group disappears, something similar will quickly take its place. Leaderless organisations easily replicate themselves.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Solution Architect - Contract

£500 - £600 per day: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Solution Architect is requir...

360 Resourcing Solutions: Export Sales Coordinator

£18k - 20k per year: 360 Resourcing Solutions: ROLE: Export Sales Coordinato...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Telesales Executive - OTE £35,000+

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest developer of mobile...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The old 1,000 Greek drachma notes and current 20 euros  

Greece debt crisis: History shows 'new drachma' is nothing to fear

Ben Chu
David Cameron leaves Number 10 to speak at Parliament  

Tunisia attack: To prevent more bloodshed we must accept that containment has not worked

Patrick Cockburn
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue