Our Glastonbury U2 Protest Was a Call for an Ethical Tax Culture
The Bono Pay Up protest was about irresponsible tax behaviour undermining democracy, public services and global development
On 24 June Art Uncut erected a 9ft-wide, 24ft-high column at the front of the audience at U2's set at Glastonbury, with the words "U PAY TAX 2?". This expression of our concerns was quickly pulled down by heavy-handed security, breaking a finger of one of our team in the process. But the column was up long enough to be filmed and photographed, and the images appeared on the BBC website, on the Politics Show and in many national newspapers.
There was a narrower and a broader point to our protest. The narrower point was to raise concerns about the irresponsible way U2 arrange their tax affairs. In 2006 U2 Ltd moved most of its tax affairs to Holland, seemingly in response to the Irish government's decision to cap the tax-free exemption on royalties at €225,000 (before this, artists in Ireland were not obliged to pay any tax on royalties). Our concern is that when individuals and corporations "shop around" different countries for the best tax deal, this puts pressure on governments all round the world to lower their tax rates, which results in an ever-dwindling proportion of profits going to governments to spend on schools, hospitals and public services. Given the financial difficulties in the group's native country right now, any tax revenue denied to Ireland hurts badly.
The broader point of the protest was to raise awareness of the connection between tax ethics and development. Christian Aid estimates that $160bn, more than the global aid budget, is lost every year to the developing world from multinational tax dodging. It's clear that if we're serious about making developing countries richer, we need individuals and corporations to take a much more ethical and responsible approach to their tax affairs.
Art Uncut aims to bring about a culture shift, to create a world where people automatically and instinctively think about tax ethically. We're not claiming that individuals have a duty to pay as much tax as possible. Rather each of us has a duty to think about tax in an ethical context, to ask questions such as: what's my fair share? What do I owe to the country that paid for my healthcare and education? What's the spirit as well as the letter of the law? What effect does how I arrange my tax affairs have on the globe?
Let me suggest two ways in which this culture shift might come about. First, we want to empower people to "Just Say No!" to the tax accountant. We have a culture at the moment in which tax is seen as something complicated that is best left to the experts. We want to encourage individuals who have made a bit of money to realise that their tax decisions are shot through with value. It is within their power to tell their tax accountant that they don't want the only consideration to be the minimisation of their tax bill. JK Rowling and Graham Norton have spoken with great eloquence and conviction on this issue.
Second, we want to encourage consumers to make tax one consideration in their choice of which artists to support, or which companies to buy from; just as environmental considerations already figure in these decisions. We want to see a world in five years' time when credible musicians just don't do what U2 Ltd did, because they know the public won't support it.
Last week I argued with a financial analyst about our Bono Pay Up campaign on the World Service Newshour. He came out with the tired line that "as long as it's legal it's fine". But more and more people are realising that good citizenship is more than just sticking to the exact letter of the law – that it's fine if you're wealthy enough to get accountants to find clever loopholes around the clear intentions of parliament. It undermines democracy when the rich can avoid what the democratic government has decided is an appropriate amount of tax for them to pay, and it is morally schizophrenic to suppose that we have a duty to obey the letter of the law but not its spirit.
The Bono Pay Up campaign has been a great success and Art Uncut intends to build on this. In the UK you struggle against a rightwing media to get ideas out there. The Uncut movement has stumbled upon a powerful way of raising awareness: direct action. And it works. We're going to continue to complement the work of UK Uncut by raising awareness of political themes that are at one remove from the cuts – tax and development, class discrimination, the power of the City of London – but which ultimately have significance for the anti-cuts movement. We're going to continue working closely with Tax Justice Network to challenge the tax affairs of artists, musicians and public figures. Not because we're self-righteous prigs that love to have a dig, but because we want to change the world for the better.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2011