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

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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.

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