Almost a year ago, the Guardian wrote that Britain was taking “a leap into the political unknown” when the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats “formed the first full coalition government in Britain since 1945.” Many wondered if the new government would chart a unique course in history, pursuing policies that blended those of the old-line conservatives with those of modern progressives. Unfortunately, the resulting Cameron-Clegg government pursued a very old path — that of balancing budgets on the backs of working class people rather than asking the rich to pay their fair share. The coalition government pushed for “the sharpest cuts to public spending since World War II,” which would cost the country more than a half million jobs, dramatically cut back on social welfare spending, and raise the pension age to 66 by 2020, “four years earlier than planned.” These cuts come on top of massive education cuts that doubled or tripled tuition for many students, and which broke one of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s own campaign promises. Yet the citizens of the United Kingdom decided that it was unfair for them to have to pay for a budget crisis that resulted from a global recession they didn’t cause. A massive and renewed progressive movement has erupted across the pond focusing on the government’s failure to make tax dodging corporations and individuals pay what they owe while attacking the poor and middle class. This Saturday, this movement mobilized the largest protests since the Iraq war, with hundreds of thousands of people in London marching against the slash-and-burn coalition agenda. That movement is shaking the foundations of British society and forcing conservative retreats, and, slowly, Americans are learning from their Anglo neighbors and fighting back against the right-wing attack on the middle class on our shores as well.
THE COALITION’S DICKENSIAN VISION: Since taking power, the UK’s coalition government has aggressively rammed through, and continues to push for, massive cuts to social spending and necessities, championing a vision of Britain that has its roots in a Charles Dickens novel — one where the well-to-do have all the opportunities in life while most ordinary people struggle to get by. One of the major campaign promises of the Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg was that his party would not support increasing tuition at British universities, arguing that doing so would be fundamentally unfair to students. Yet this past winter, coalition lawmakers ignored massive youth protests and pushed through a plan that would effectively triple tuition fees for most students. The coalition also proceeded to make deep cuts to social services and aid to municipalities, continuing to force ordinary British citizens to pay for a recession they did not cause. All over the country, firefighters are being laid off, libraries are being shut down, and hospitals are facing staffing shortages. And these cuts are bad for the economy, removing needed stimulus and threatening to bring the country back into recession. By last fall, these planned cuts amounted to the sharpest cutbacks in public spending since World War II, with shadow chancellor Alan Johnson remarking that the gutting of services would be worse than former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing policies in the 1980’s. Meanwhile, the coalition has also increased the value-added tax by 20 percent, which primarily hurts middle class and lower-income people.
THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE: When Thatcher pushed through her policies three decades ago, she famously remarked, “There is no alternative.” Yet last Fall, a tiny group of British activists set off a massive movement that proved that there is, indeed, an alternative to brutal cuts to services for ordinary Britons. On October 27, 2010, a small number of protesters — outraged that ordinary citizens were being asked to sacrifice their services while tax-dodging cellphone firm Vodafone owed 6 billion pounds in back taxes it had refused to pay — began a sit-in in one of the company’s largest branches. News of the protest spread like wildfire on the Internet, with activists using Twitter and Facebook to spread the story of Vodafone’s tax dodging. Within three days, almost thirty Vodafone stores were forced to close down as more and more people took part in sit-ins against the company. Soon, this nascent movement, calling itself UK Uncut, exploded throughout the country, with protests against tax-dodging big corporations and wealthy individuals completely reshaping the narrative that the only way to deal with the country’s budget deficit was to ram through budget cuts that disproportionately hurt working people. The only part of the British media “that attacked UK Uncut outright was, predictably, Rupert Murdoch’s empire,” which also owns Fox News in the United States. This isn’t surprising, given that Murdoch’s companies are among the most egregious tax dodgers; his News Corporation has gone entire years without paying a penny in U.S. federal corporate income taxes, despite making billions of dollars in profits. UK Uncut worked in tandem with the country’s trade unions to mobilize as many as half a million people to march on London this weekend, “in the largest protest since the city’s 2003 march against the Iraq war.”
LESSONS FOR MAIN STREET AMERICA: When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), fresh off of passing a $117 million corporate tax cut package, decided to gut public employee collective bargaining rights in the state, he never expected to face a mass movement of thousands of Wisconsinites fighting back. Yet the progressive upsurge in Wisconsin, which may end up unseating Walker and many of his legislative allies, has spread throughout the country, comprising a Main Street Movement of ordinary Americans demanding fair sacrifice. Across the country, Americans are battling unfair budget cuts and demanding just taxation of the super wealthy. Inspired by the British example, activists have launched US Uncut, which is targeting companies like Bank of America — which, despite being the country’s largest bank, paid nothing in federal corporate income taxes in 2009 and 2010. US Uncut had 40 demonstrations across the country over the weekend, with protesters shutting down a major Washington, D.C. branch of the bank. Meanwhile, protests continue across the country as more than a dozen conservative state governments across the country plan to slash corporate tax rates while increasing taxes and/or cutting services for low and middle-income Americans. “We have a deficit problem. It has to be addressed,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in a press release addressing tax fairness. “But it cannot be addressed on the backs of the sick, the elderly, the poor, young people, the most vulnerable in this country. The wealthiest people and the largest corporations in this country have got to contribute. We’ve got to talk about shared sacrifice.”