Jonathan May-Bowles: UK Uncut and Its Impact

jmVeteran protester, sometime anarchist, stand-up comedian, and expert pie handler Jonnie Marbles, officially known as Jonathan May-Bowles, talks to contributing-editor Darren Parkin about the character, origins, and future of UK Uncut, a movement that suffered its fifteen minutes of fame, momentarily reshuffled the national agenda, and has faded into relative obscurity.

Mr May-Bowles gained fame and a measure of notoriety when in 2011 he served media mogul Rupert Murdoch a foam pie during a high-profile appearance in parliament to explain his newspapers’ hacking of telephones to the members of the standing Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee. At the time, the octogenarian was saved from direct impact by his trophy wife Wendy Deng (46) – a successful businesswoman and protagonist of a rags-to-riches story – who shielded her husband from the heap of shaving foam and proceeded to slap the assailant in the face. Mr Murdoch has since divorced his saviour.

Promptly arrested and handcuffed, Mr May-Bowles was initially sentenced to six weeks in prison, a verdict later reduced to four weeks of which he served two. Not merely a disruptive comedian, Mr May-Bowles manages to raise a number of inconvenient questions about British society and the direction in which the nation is heading. Mr May-Bowles is a cofounder of UK Uncut.

UK Uncut drew public attention brilliantly, and peacefully, to some remarkably eye-catching issues in the world of economics, but since all the calm, sit-down protests across the country, things seem to have quietened down – what happened?

It’s been a fair few years since I’ve been to a UK Uncut meeting. From the levels of activity and press interest they get these days, I fear the same is true for many others. Perhaps I’m wrong, and UK Uncut thrums now with as many members as it ever did and they have grand plans and clever schemes pupating in a West London squat somewhere, ready to take wing and unleash glorious mess upon the rich and powerful. I certainly wouldn’t put it past them: they are, without doubt, the cleverest band of miscreants I’ve ever had the good fortune to try and change the world with.

That said, the dulling of the drums is undeniable, but a melancholy quiet nonetheless. For one who dreamed our beat might somehow keep growing, pulling in ever more to our throng, our many musics mingling and swelling till its rat-tat-tat was just one wave of sound that would shake the Palace of Westminster to its foundations, shudder the coke from bankers noses, and make the TSG [Territorial Support Group – a specialist branch of the London Metropolitan Police dedicated in “public order containment”] tremble with such fear that their rattling shields and helmets added to our chorus, this now bangless whimper is a saddening thing to see.

Still I’m not blameless. After all I left – as did many others, often with good reason – though I do not think that is what is bringing about the silence. In the early days of the group’s activities there was an unusual mixture of edginess and safety to their actions. People tired of walking in a straight line holding placards could go and actually do something with little to no fear of arrest. There was a certain cheekiness to our chosen tactic – walking into ostensibly public spaces up and down the high street and reforming them to our own purposes. Phone shops became sit-ins, banks became crèches and libraries, Boots briefly became a pretend hospital and then, just briefly, an actual hospital when the police bizarrely started pepper spraying us and the staff (who, as so often was the case, totally agreed with our cause) helpfully offered both medical and emotional support. Incidents such as these were few and far between, however (though there were certainly occasional arrests – I spent my first hours in one of Her Majesty’s minimalistic decorated locked rooms after a Topshop employee pretended that I had assaulted him, long before Rupert Murdoch clumsily got a pie I was holding all over his face.

Something UK Uncut offered the disgruntled public was a chance to be civilly disobedient at scant risk to liberty and limb, and many jumped at the chance to go on a ramble across the thin blue line. For me, and I suspect many others, one of the most satisfying parts of the experience was the near total impotence of the Metropolitan Police. Faced with dozens, sometimes hundreds of largely middle class, often very well educated, trouble makers doing nothing more troublesome than sitting down where they shouldn’t, Britain’s largest police force seemed completely stumped.

Then came March 26. No one is sure why the police changed tactics. Perhaps Bernard Hogan Howe [London’s police commissioner] had some vast revelation after staring intently at his handcuffs for several hours, or the suggestion was proffered by some constable’s eight-year-old on “bring your kid to work day” – however the idea was hatched and on March 26, 2011, the cops decided to give a new and innovative tactic a try: “just arrest everyone.”

In this case “everyone” constituted 126 people who happened to be in Fortnam and Mason’s at about 7 PM. Large buses were brought into play as protesters were ferried around the city to any police station that still had room on a Saturday night. Some were treated disgustingly, including a 15-year-old girl who was told she would have to stay in the Spartan featureless cell police use for 24-hour lockups for the next six months. The injustice system was helped along its merry way by the British press whose firm belief in the veracity of police press releases seems to range from the supine to the aroused.

The accused (most of whom spent their time in F&M singing, blowing bubbles, and generally bringing the carnival atmosphere of so many other UK Uncut protests to the halls of the Queen’s favourite grocer) were labelled violent anarchist thugs. Despite having undertaken one of the largest mass arrests in UK history, the state decided that actually prosecuting all its detainees would be expensive and a right faff so, in the interests of justice, the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] named a handful of defendants, split them into three groups, and tried them for aggravated trespass.

The CPS claimed its defendants were the “ringleaders.” However, activists close to the actual preparations for M26 [March 26] could make neither head nor tail of the logic behind the list, eventually concluding the state had compiled it using a blindfold and a pin. Luckily, the sentences meted out were not custodial, but the state had made its point: be peaceful if you want. Know the law if you want. Come in great numbers, without malice aforethought, to exercise your hallowed right to protest. None of that matters: we can and will arrest you by the ton and make up the rules for dealing with you later.

What had seemed like a fun game (albeit a heavily mismatched one where one side had all the money, power, and influence whilst the other had some pluck, guile, and hastily hand-painted banners) now seemed much more serious. It’s one thing to break the law knowing the potential consequences. It’s quite another to break it when you have no idea what the government will or won’t do – when you can’t even trust it to keep to its own rules, or the thinnest pretence of fairness. There’s a kind of anarchy in that modus operandi, and not the kind beloved by my fellow dreamy, freedom yearning utopians – a brutal, savage, random anarchy, the very type the government would like you to believe black-hooded protesters around the world are smashing windows for.

That wasn’t the end of UK Uncut, but looking back it was the beginning of the end. Whatever was said round meeting tables and in pubs, the state had scared us as much with its capriciousness as anything else it had to offer. Actions happened – and still do from time to time – but the scale has gradually eroded, the appetite for risk decayed. In activist parlance, the group has become mortifyingly fluffy. Perhaps a more searing indictment, though, is that I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the group now stands for. Tax justice? An end to austerity? Shutting down Boots for the afternoon? All laudable aims for sure, but there is no doubt that the initial energy, focus, and excitement have gone.

Did the protesters achieve what they set out to do, and has anything changed in the world because of it?

If UK Uncut set out to put tax avoidance by the mega-rich on the map as an issue, I think there’s no doubt they’ve succeeded. “Tackling tax avoidance” was one of the major ways parties pretended they would pay for their policies at the last election, and it has provided a major rebuttal to the austerity narrative.

However, if UK Uncut’s aim was to radically change the tax system, end austerity, or bring down the Tory government then I think it’s reasonable to say they’ve failed.

UK Uncut certainly put tax avoidance on the agenda but, sadly, politicians are far better at reading out agendas than implementing them.

You’re very much an active voice in the fight for a more equal society, but what do we need to do as a nation to start working towards fairness for all?

As a self-confessed anarchist I would say we need to totally dismantle the arbitrary systems of power which currently rule our lives: the banking system, the police, the justice system, parliament, state and private education, state and private media conglomerates… *some hours later*… and Tescos all need to be ripped down and reinstated as entities which belong to the people whose lives they affect rather than distant, unaccountable elites. However, I’ve found that completely destroying and then reorganising the entire infrastructure of modern capitalism is to be too big a job for me to make much headway on personally, and others may find the same.

A more practical answer might be that we need to start ignoring and resisting these institutions, both individually and en masse. This might mean anything from reading a different or wider variety of newspapers to handing out bust cards to strangers getting hassled by police to refusing to participate in work which you consider harmful, meaningless, or destructive. I suppose what I’m advocating is a kind of “Atlas Shrugged” approach, except in my version the world slides merrily off Atlas’s shoulders, falls on his toe, and rolls its way towards freedom.

There will always be the argument that people should strive harder to succeed, but every society has within it people who simply cannot do that. Who’s fighting their corner?

Surprisingly few, but there are organisations – from charities like Mind to direct action groups like DPAC [Disabled People Against Cuts] – that take up the mantle of those who cannot survive the merciless cosh of capitalism without at least a little headgear to soften the blow. It’s terrifying that people who can’t work are being forced to justify their existence and right to live; worse still that those appeals to decency aren’t assessed by medical professionals or even the government itself but by private companies like ATOS and now (I think) Capita, whose motive is profit and who many believe are on commission to get people off benefits. Behind all this is the distasteful insinuation that disabled people are faking it – that they just don’t want to work.

Which brings me to another, related and I think equally important question: who is fighting the corner of people who really don’t want to work?   

No one, and why would they? The people successful enough to have the resources to pick a fight prefer a narrative in which their success is won by hard work and talent rather than doled out by the capricious whims of a cold, uncaring universe. This story is not only very comforting to rich people, giving them both the right to pat themselves smugly on the back and dampening their fears that the wheel of luck might turn and make them poor, but it helpfully negates their responsibilities to those less fortunate. If you’re not rich, you obviously didn’t work hard enough, so why should I be forced to help when you come tapping the begging bowl?

Perhaps the best thing about this horrible lie is that it’s completely unfalsifiable. For a start, it benefits from the utter meaningless of the term “hard work” in this context (presumably people who spend decades in food services or cleaning without aren’t working hard, whilst people living off the rent they collect from letting out flat they inherited and let out are) which in turn means the logic is totally circular: Poor? – You must not be working very hard. Rich? –Well done on all the hard work!

There is, at present, no one making the case against hard work (besides anarchists, who generally don’t get the biggest platform in the mainstream media): it’s frequently harmful to the individual doing and creates a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses competitive environment that turns social circles into circle-jerks over who owns the latest what and warm friendships into chilled envies over who got the biggest raise. Perhaps most obviously, it starves the individual of leisure time and liberty even on those occasions it enriches their bank balance. The shirkers-and-strivers narrative espoused by the Tories is as dangerous as it is false: nobody asked to be born into a hyper-capitalist state, so from whence does anyone get the right to force people to work merely in order to survive?

Does the tax system need reforming?

Obviously. I don’t think there is anyone in politics now who would say no to this question (aside from a few on the far ends of the left/right spectrum who would replace “reforming” with “abolishing”). The trickier and more pertinent question is how?

My personal preference would be: much higher income taxes for the über-rich – whose persistent threat to go on strike by leaving the country, should such a thing happen, never seems to receive the same opprobrium from the media as other forms of collective action – and a restructuring of the corporate tax code so that profit is acknowledged as being made at point of sale rather than at a PO Box in Switzerland and taxed accordingly. Additionally, there should be a total rethink of VAT with more genuinely essential goods such as gas and electricity for individuals, sanitary towels, prophylactics, non-prescription medicines, phones and phone calls, and most clothes totally exempt from VAT whilst super-luxury products would be subjected to higher rates. For many products (for example: cars, jewellery, clothing) the luxury status of a good is easily determined by its price and how far above the median value for such goods that price is. Put a bit more simply: a £3,000 Gucci dress should incur higher VAT than a £9 one from Primark. An £8,000 Skoda should incur less VAT than a £50,000 Porsche. Often genuinely luxury goods are beneficiaries of wealthy individuals’ taste for conspicuous consumption and so are what economists Veblen Goods – demand for them actually increases as their price goes up. So it’s a win-win for everyone.

What are your thoughts on the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP)?

TTIP could be the worst thing to happen to the public sector and consumer rights in my lifetime. Of course, it’s hard to know for sure as the meetings about it have all been so secretive. It’s somewhat incredible that Kippers and other nationalists demand a referendum every time the EU wants to redefine a biscuit but seem blissfully supine about the wholesale giveaway of sovereignty that TTIP represents.

Perhaps the problem is that most people have never heard of TTIP, let alone have any notion of why it’s bad, and summing up its awfulness in a few brief sentences is a job that would leave far pithier wordsmiths than me with a severe migraine. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot: TTIP will, to all intents and purposes, be the end of meaningful democracy in Europe – whether such a thing exists right now is a bone of contention, but it definitely won’t if this treaty is passed.

The introduction of Investor State Dispute Settlements will allow companies to sue governments for loss of profits – so should people, for example, vote for a higher minimum wage they will likely see any gains made from that decision sucked back into shareholders pockets by a barrage of lawsuits. Meanwhile anything which makes your average tycoon pull a frowny face – the NHS, say, or workers’ rights – will be dismantled in a rapid race to the bottom.

Oddly, though the stated aim of TTIP is merely to bring US and EU regulations into closer harmony, reaching that sweet pitch never seems to involve increasing regulations – whilst generally speaking the EU will be falling in line with the US, shredding hard-won rights and regulations like an investment banker with the SFO at the door – the US banking sector is likely to see a liberalisation of its rules to get them in line with London’s wild-west approach to financial governance. It is, in short, a massive power-grab by corporations which will crush the independence of states and the democratic right of voters to govern their own countries.

Bugger. I told you I couldn’t do it in a few brief sentences.

Do you have any regrets about the Rupert Murdoch incident?

Regrets? I have a few. But then again, too – oh, all right then. After the incident, many people’s outcry centred round the fact that what was in fact a paper plate with some shaving foam “could have been anything.” Considering the state’s overreaction to what was a pretty-silly non-violent protest I sometimes wish it had been anything. I mean, if you’re going down for assault, you might as well actually, you know, assault someone.

On a more serious note, I regret the timing of my prison sentence. Not the sentence itself, which at two weeks was a pretty perfect stay at what I’m told was her majesty’s considerable pleasure. Seriously, if you ever get the chance and can find the time, I recommend two weeks in prison to anyone – you’ll meet fascinating people, catch up on daytime TV and leave with a renewed and rejuvenated sense of utter contempt for the British state. The timing, however, forced me to miss a family holiday with my son (a holiday which, under normal circumstances, would have seen the judgement deferred, but I think my stunt had left one or two people in the establishment a little bit peeved so these were far from normal circumstances).

Finally, I often regret pleading guilty. At the time the idea was to put a line under things and save my family, girlfriend, and others from considerable stress. A jail sentence was not on the cards when I made the decision (my lawyers were told about the assault charge, which was what got me imprisoned, some twenty minutes before I made my plea) so I thought it would get things over and done with quickly. In retrospect, if I was going to do time anyway, I might as well have given the public a bit more of a show, played the whole thing out a bit, and called Murdoch as a witness.

Aside from that, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

Anything else?

Trying to answer your first question, I ended up penning this utterly monstrous preamble. It was useful for getting my thoughts in order but I didn’t want to make you wade through all those paragraphs before I even started answering your question. Nevertheless, I thought it may be of some value so I’ve tucked it in here:

First, a dollop of background on why UK Uncut ever succeeded in the first place. All opinions are mine own, etc.

UK Uncut worked exceedingly well, albeit all too briefly, for three reasons: co-operation, innovation, and an understanding of new technology its opponents simply lacked. First of all, and unusually for a rag-tag bunch of disparate lefties that included smash-the-state anarchists like me, social democrats, libertarians (yes, libertarians occupying squats, shops, and cells in order to make the case for higher taxes), cold careerists and almost everyone in between – we actually got on with each other.

Early on we were affable and laid back, sensible without being over cautious, and close enough friends to catapult each other’s ideas out of the air with a well cranked barrage of shit and still respect each other’s viewpoints after. The widely derided consensus model – attempted with limited success at Occupy amongst other radical movements going back some years – actually worked for us, for a time at least, forcing us to polish our plans to perfection before we unleashed them on some poor unsuspecting Saturday high street.

Why was this band of misfits able to work together so easily though when, ultimately, most of us had wildly divergent aims? I think it’s partly because so many of us had history together but also because we had such focused, precise goal – yet one each of us could see as a stepping stone towards some greater prize.

Some of us felt we were fracking some of free market capitalism’s great fissures and paradoxes – using the necessary openness of retail spaces as a foothold – and we could shine a shaming spotlight on the jaw-dropping corrupt relationship between big business and big government, passionately and unabashedly in bed together yet somehow screwing the rest of us. That’s why I marched, and sat, and got arrested: a system like Britain, venal and elitist; a system like capitalism, cold and capricious; a system like the West, hypocritical and vainglorious, must ultimately suffocate on the stench of its own corruption and inconsistency. I, and a few like-minded souls, came to UK Uncut to fan that pong towards the public (whatever that word means nowadays) and, perhaps, sicken them enough to help us end the decaying folly of wild, unaccountable neoliberalism before it became too late.

Others came to do simpler and, arguably, more practical things: help raise awareness of tax avoidance, establish that ordinary people still had extraordinary power, to disquiet, distress, and perhaps capsize the Conservative Party before it could hoist full sail and in, a handful of cases, just to help ignite third or fourth sector careers or so they could one day boast at some dinner: “I was there.”

We succeeded at most of these goals a little, some a lot, and a few not at all. But why?

Firstly, in in choosing tax avoidance as its focus, UK Uncut shined unwelcome light upon the tangled, creeping corruption that personifies the modern relationship between big business and the state. Tax loopholes for the rich and powerful are nothing new, of course, but we have, whilst barely noticing, reached a stage where our democracy is so rotten that corporations can write their own tax loopholes and simply slip them into legislation.

That this was not a major scandal before UK Uncut intervened is an indictment of the press – but, on some level, UK Uncut was as much a PR organisation as a direct action movement, providing the press with the characters, art, and narrative necessary for it to write readable stories about boring issues. The true genius though was the problem’s essential intractability – “lower taxes for corporations” had become such an unassailable piece of dogma in mainstream economics that the Conservatives would have bitten off their own hands rather than signing bills to demolish it, even if they had been inclined to do so.

Darren Parkin

Darren Parkin

By Darren Parkin, contributing-editor

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