Protests generate more heat than light

There is nothing the burd likes better than a good protest or a march.  You name it, I’ve probably marched for it.  Or agin it, as the case may be.  The burdz chicks were weaned on the art of the protest and both have the ignominy of appearing on Newsnight as babes in arms.

So I was tempted to don the snow boots and head for Top Shop on Princes Street in Edinburgh yesterday.  The thrill of some agitprop definitely appealed.  But then I thought about it, and I wish others had too.  For all my worst fears – and prejudices – about yesterday’s shop protests were fulfilled. 

There is something particularly unedifying about witnessing the largely haves protest on behalf of the have nots in a way that completely inconveniences those they are pretending to be trying to protect.  Let me rewind and explain my reluctance to get involved.

The point was essentially sound – to draw attention to the fact that the UK is brimful of tax avoiders like Sir Philip Green, who owns and runs Top Shop, BHS, Dorothy Perkins etc.  If he paid his fair share of income tax, the UK finances would not be in deficit and the cuts to public spending would not be required on this scale. 

The burd agrees.  I find it utterly abhorrent that disabled people and low paid parents in particular are facing the brunt of forthcoming measures and in the meantime, London will continue to offer tax haven status to Russian oligarchs and to allow massively wealthy individuals like Sir Philip and his wife to legitimately avoid paying their fair share of tax.  So far, so vomit inducing, so agreeable.

But what purpose would the protests serve?  Apparently to enlighten the masses of Green’s said tax avoidance.  By waving placards outside Top Shop?  On the first shopping Saturday before Christmas, thereby annoying shoppers and low paid shop staff?  That will get them on your side.  Not.

In any event, the choice of store at which to protest speaks volumes.  Top Shop has a certain kitsch value with the middle classes.  Gosh even Kate Moss designs for them.  Everyone likes to claim it as their favourite everyday fashion store.  But actually its core market is fairly well off under 25s, few of whom vote, many don’t pay tax.  Those young people being hit hardest by job losses tend to shop in less expensive stores and the prospect of outrageous tuition fees is not one they will have to contend with.  In any event, why would under 25s be anyone’s target audience for a tax protest? 

If the protesters had really wanted to get their point across, they would have chosen BHS as first stop.  Favoured by pensioners and low income families, this surely should have been the audience for the message.  Though I’m not sure Polly Toynbee would have been quite so keen to be photographed being removed bodily from a BHS… 

Whatever the venue, there was always a risk of dividing rather than unifying.  The point of any protest movement is to grow and this is an issue around which everyone can coalesce, so everything possible should be done to bring people on board.  A mass movement, incorporating more than the usual suspects, would terrify the ConDems and might cause them to act.  Will yesterday’s antics have recruited a single Christmas shopper or weekend shop girl?

But okay the protests happened.  A few shoppers got the message and thanks to the media, many more around the country heard it too.  Now what?

What’s the next stage in the campaign?  Let’s suppose all those folk in front of their TVs are fired up.  They agree with the protesters.  They want to get involved.  How do they do that?  

A quick trawl of the internet suggests it’s hard to find who is in charge (not necessarily a bad thing), or even a website that isn’t just a resource or reporting portal.  UK uncut is the only one to offer a campaign and actions.  But its only offering is street protests and some downloadable leaflets (some of which are very good).  Just supposing Mrs Outraged of Ayr successfully organises and stages her own street protest against Green’s outlets – what does she do next?  If the goal is to make the likes of Green pay his fair share of tax, how do we succeed in making that happen? 

Taking to the streets is only one option and indeed, one step.  If the protest against the cuts is to capture the wider public’s imagination it needs to offer alternative actions.  Here’s one:  since hearing of the Greens’ despicable tax avoidance, the burd has not spent a single penny in any of his stores.  An economic boycott might be something that a wider coalition of folk could feel comfortable engaging in.  If it gained widespread support, it would bite eventually, hurting Green and his friends in government.  

And unless and until the ConDems get the message, these protests with their muddled purpose and point will only ever generate heat and not light.

7 thoughts on “Protests generate more heat than light

  1. I can see the pr angle in going for a retailer as a visible target but is this not a case of targetting the symptom rather than the cause?

    I now intend to take my list of boycotted Companies’ products to three with:

    http://www.osborneandlittle.com

    Who’ll join me? Say “no” to chintz!

    P.S. Check out their “Europe Stockists” map – it’s been taken from one of Nigel Farage’s dreams.

  2. I have to disagree and question your attitude. Put the pressure on and keep it up. As for talking in terms of heat and light, well I think you could do better by explaining what the light is and where it should shine. These people are very thick skinned and you can pen articles about them until you are blue in the face but it will be of little effect.

    The blogger Dizzy today made a tweet about a chef who earns £200 a week who said if he earned as much money as Green he would avoid tax also, as if this somehow justified everything he ever believed. It does kind of highlight the fact though that we have created a jungle where every man is for himself – the law of the jungle, and look who is making the rules. So yeah, fuck it, put the windows through with a sledge hammer if that what it takes. That’ll let some light into dark places.

  3. Yes, your right, sometimes short term sacrifice is worth it for long term gain – I just feel uncomfortable about the sacrificing all being from others. But on the whole, I would support a boycott of tax traitors – not that I buy from his shops, so it’s probably slightly preaching to the converted.

    Apparently he’s been accused of using sweat shops a couple of times too.

  4. I actually had no idea what shops Green owns and to that extent the protests works. Not that I’ve shopped in Top Gear for many many years. Not that I’ve actually shopped for clothes for many years

  5. Interesting post – and I certainly agree that people need to know what the next steps are. However, I’m interested in how would you square your quite right concern about low paid parents, with the fact that that many people employed in his shops are probably just that, and would be the first people hurt by a boycott?

    Also interesting heard a comment recently that we should stop calling them tax exiles or tax avoiders, like it’s some kind of cheeky game, and be honest and call them tax traitors instead.

    • I agree absolutely on the language. Tax traitors is much nearer the mark and we shouldn’t be afraid to use loaded language to get the point across.

      And you have raised the perennial concern with sanctions and boycotts. I am always reminded of South Africans’ response to concerns that economic sanctions against the apartheid regime would hurt the poorest and therefore black South Africans worst. They wanted sanctions because it would hasten regime change. Perhaps what we need to encourage is for a living wage to be enacted for all workers including the private sector and that would protect shop workers somewhat? A concerted boycott against Green’s shops would surely work to get the point across that “tax treason” is not acceptable. It definitely needs more thought than my blogpost gave it!

  6. As someone who buys their claes almost entirely from charity shops, I am already conducting this protest and have done for several years!

    I’ve never been in Top Shop or Top Man though I’m quite the sartorial dandy in my velvet smoking jacket and jodhpurs!

    It’s worth mentioning that both his (Green’s) 50th birthday and his son’s barmitzvah were multi million pound affairs. His missus also bought him a gold and jewel encrusted Monopoly set which featured his own properties.

    Pass the sick bag.

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