Dissecting a movement: analysing UK Uncut

Photo: Divinenephron

The zeitgeist in activism in the first half of 2011 has definitely been UK Uncut. The network’s ethos of enjoyable direct action has appealed to activists, and, more crucially, the middle classes in a way that no other campaign has managed to in the last few years.

With hindsight offering predictably 20:20 vision, one could easily say this development was inevitable. Indeed, the level of anger and radicalism present in the UK at the moment is something of a high water mark. The combination of job losses and austerity measures; and the failure of traditional tactics has given rise to a culture of dissent, beyond the ranks of the usual suspects of anarchists and hippies.

UK Uncut has managed to transform this into something creative as well as anti-authoritarian. The radical wing of the student movement, for example, has segued into UK Uncut in the last few months. Understanding a little of the context for this is helpful:

The student movement, having had its baptism of fire in Milbank in November 2010, was let down by, first, its own elected leadership in the figurehead of Aaron Porter, and with the subsequent parliamentary vote to bring into effect £9,000 tuition fees. Left disempowered by the impotence of so many orderly marches and without faith in the vacillating NUS, the movement, as a coherent force, came to an end.

But the positive outcome of this was an increasing realisation that so called ‘student issues’ are not so easily compartmentalised –indeed, that no political or economic issues are truly independent of one another.

The prevalence of a more holistic analysis –one that has the space to include unfashionable phrases like ‘capitalism’, and ‘anti-capitalism’ once again- has definitely been a key part of students’ involvement in the UK Uncut actions. But we should look at UK Uncut based on its own virtues as well.

Direct action has never felt like a particularly ‘British’ thing. Middle England is so typically deferential (if not actively subservient) to authority that the very idea of parents taking their young children to subvert and occupy a Natwest branch on a Saturday morning is quite absurd. And yet this is exactly what happened on Saturday 26th of February.

The 26th was a day of action called by UK Uncut, with around 100 Lloyds TSB, Natwest and RBS branches being occupied up and down the country.

The logic of the occupation tactic is beautiful in its simplicity: all across the board the government is implementing a series of stringent, and ideologically motivated ‘austerity measures’. The banks, however, are deemed ‘too big to fail’ and, unlike the public, have the ear –and wallet- of the government. If there is one place where public services can ride out the storm -be they laundry services, childcare facilities or libraries- it is in a bank.

At 9:45am I arrived at the local café in Camden chosen as the meeting point for the action. Having agreed to act as a legal observer, rather than attending as an activist, I wasn’t entirely sure what form the Big Society ‘Bail-in’ would take. After weaving my way through a dozen energetic toddlers bouncing around in the doorway, each clutching crayons and toy musical instruments, it soon became apparent that the Natwest was to become a crèche or breakfast club.

I was interested to see how the bank would react. They had of course had prior warning –the UK Uncut press release and map of actions kept nothing secret- and it was possible they would simply shut up shop. A walk down Oxford Street during one of the anti-cuts marches in January had allowed me to see first hand the fear that so many high-street shops and banks have of demonstrators. HMV, Barclays, Top Shop, Vodafone; all pulled down their shutters as soon as the approaching crowd was in earshot. Customers were trapped inside the temporary commercial prisons, until such a time as the mob had passed.

In the event, the banks must have had a policy handed down to them from their headquarters. At 10am, when pushchairs, children and parents piled into the branch, the staff, though perceptibly stiffer, batted not an eyelid. Their security were interested only in keeping the walkway open, so that bewildered customers could continue to queue.

As legal observers, wearing identifiable orange bibs, the security tended to confer authority upon us, asking us to ensure the gangway was kept clear. This wasn’t our role, though, and given the policy of non-confrontation held by the bank and the police, our jobs became redundant very quickly. Looking back, aside from one heated moment when the police asked a young man and woman to leave a side room, my notes consisted almost entirely of the nursery rhymes being sung at the time.

The presence of so many children must have had something to do with the decision to allow the occupation to go ahead. With so many photojournalists on the spot any conflict would have been disastrous PR. But the children’s presence had other positive consequences.

At about 11am, a drunk man came into the branch to see what the commotion was about, and proceeded to loudly question the people nearest the door. One or two of the activists took him aside and politely asked him to keep his voice down, “because there are children trying to sleep”. Whether or not this was true –most of the kids were too busy hammering away at glockenspiels to consider taking a nap- it worked well, and the man enthusiastically agreed, apologised, and then left.

If the job of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible, then perhaps the job of children is to prove so delightful a distraction that any prospect of violent confrontation evaporates away. Seeing so many activists, of so many backgrounds and of so many generations in the bank was immensely refreshing. It is always a worry when you find yourself in a crowd of mostly young, white men during a demonstration, for legitimate anger and civil disobedience are the democratic right and imperative of us all.

UK Uncut has so far managed to achieve an impressive balance of radicalism, accessibility, and good humour. Its strategy has proven effective in bringing new people into activism, as well. However, its overnight success and media exposure has thrust it onto something of a pedestal. You get the sense that UK Uncut must be thinking “what next?”

Whilst the very act of creating a socially useful space in these bank branches prefigures the world we would like to see, and empowers us to think differently about the social and economic relationships of our society, occupation nonetheless runs the risk of becoming the end in and of itself.

UK Uncut needs to think carefully about its strategy and goals. We are at an exciting juncture, with so much potential –and potential that UK Uncut has helped to foster. We need to keep our actions effective and subversive. Without this radical edge we risk burning out at a time when our sustained activism has never been more necessary.



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