As Bono and his ageing band took to the stage for their headlining performance, activists in the crowd inflated a 25-foot balloon saying ‘U Pay Your Tax 2’. The plan was to float it in front of the stage so that the band, their 50,000 rain-drenched fans and thousands of TV viewers would get the message.
But a team of fierce-looking security guards in blue anoraks immediately pounced on the protestors. There were violent clashes, as they forcibly took control of the balloon, deflated it and took it away.
Several protestors were pinned against a fence, and one reported a broken finger. A security guard told a photographer to "go away", adding: "If you are press, I'll have you."
The attack on the balloon was cheered by some in the crowd, but booed by others. "It was all a bit shocking,” said Gary Noble, 45, from Eastbourne.
“I love U2 but I think everyone should pay their taxes. The campaigners have a right to voice their opinion.”
The protest, which had been given a lot of advance publicity, was organised by Art Uncut, a new offshoot of UK Uncut, a radical group of activists that has been targeting big company tax-dodgers. They criticized Glastonbury’s organisers for betraying their radical roots by preventing the protest.
“If they can get away with it, the wealthy establishment tend to hire heavies to crush dissent,” said a statement from Art Uncut yesterday.
“We wanted a dialogue with U2, on an issue which is crucial for international development. Instead we got heavy-handed security tactics; our highly visible expression of conscience was pulled down after just a few minutes.”
In a message on Twitter, the group referred to the founder of the Glastonbury Festival, local farmer Michael Eavis. “Can we have our balloon back please, Mr Eavis?” it said.
Glastonbury’s organisers insisted that they had not ordered the balloon’s deflation. “The stewards decided to stop the banner going up, but it was their decision and not under instruction from organisers,” said a spokesman for the festival.
“They clearly decided the banner could be dangerous and could disrupt people's view. It was a decision taken on the grounds of health and safety, not on the grounds of censorship.”
Despite what happened, Art Uncut is claiming “great success” for its “Bono Pay Up” campaign in raising the issue of unpaid taxes, and the damage they do. The media attention it had attracted had raised awareness of “the importance of thinking about tax ethically”, it said.
Against the background of escalating opposition to the government’s spending cuts, the activists have succeeded in posing an uncomfortable question. Why are ordinary people being asked to endure painful reductions in public services, while rich rock stars, millionaire sportsmen and powerful businessmen manage to avoid paying billions of pounds in taxes?
As well as U2, Sir Sean Connery, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Willie Nelson and Paul Hogan have all been accused of avoiding taxes in the past. It’s almost considered de rigueur for those involved in Formula One racing, like David Coultard, Lewis Hamilton and Bernie Ecclestone (see below).
For the protestors, U2 are just a high-profile symbol. They are one of the world’s most famous rock bands, fronted by Bono, who is almost as famous for campaigning alongside Bob Geldof to try and persuade world leaders to make poverty history.
But by failing to pay tax in their home country of Ireland, U2 is accused, along with other celebrities and multinational corporations, of depriving governments of money that is vital for paying for schools, hospitals and other crucial public services.
The total sums of money involved are enormous. The official estimate of how much tax is missing from UK coffers was £42 billion in 2008-09. But many experts put the figure much higher, suggesting that the real amount could be £120 billion.
To put these numbers in context, the UK’s total public spending last year was £669 billion, and the government wants to cut some £81 billion over the next four years. The total budget for the National Health Service was about £100 billion, schools cost £46 billion and Scotland cost £35 billion (see below).
U2 is said to have moved its company to a finance house in Holland in 2006 after the Irish government scrapped a tax exemption for artists. The band is among the world’s highest-earning musicians, reportedly raking in about £80 million last year.
“U2's multi-million euro tax dodge is depriving the Irish people at a time when they desperately need income to offset the Irish government’s savage austerity programme,” said Charlie Dewar from Art Uncut.
“Tax nestling in the band's bank account should be helping to keep open the hospitals, schools and libraries that are closing all over Ireland,” Dewar argued.
“There is also a whiff of hypocrisy here with Bono being so well-known for his anti-poverty campaigning, since each year developing countries lose more in tax avoidance by multinational companies and rich individuals than they receive in aid.”
U2 hasn’t responded to the protest, though its manager, Paul McGuinness, has previously said that as a global band, U2 paid many different taxes all over the world. The band's guitarist, The Edge, has said: “Of course we want to be tax efficient - who doesn't?”
The protest at Glastonbury was the first to target celebrities. In recent months, activists from UK Uncut have caused disruptions at branches of companies that have allegedly dodged taxes, including Vodafone, Topshop, Barclays and Fortnum & Mason.
The protestors believe they have a point that most people will understand, and have been backed by trade unions. “Our message to U2 and others like them is: pay your tax,” Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, told the Sunday Herald.
Successive governments had done little about the “staggeringly huge” amount of unpaid tax, he said. “It’s shameful that some individuals and organisations arrange their affairs to pay as little tax as they can, depriving our country’s finances of tens of billions of pounds.”
A group of campaigners known as the Tax Justice Network has also provided research that backs up the protestors’ claims. “British companies are among the world leaders at tax avoidance,” said John Christensen, an economist who directs the network.
“While they like to claim that avoidance is not illegal, the consequences are the same as tax evasion: loss of revenue for the government, declining public services, and higher taxes forced on ordinary people.”
Tax avoidance by the rich has, however, does have some fans, and was defended by the right-wing author and columnist, Toby Young. Illegally evading tax was wrong, but legally trying to minimise the tax you pay is “perfectly rational”, he argued.
“Governments routinely increase taxes on certain things – such as cigarettes – in the hope that we will alter our behaviour as a consequence and avoid buying them,” he said.
“It would be odd if a government told us it was perfectly right and proper for ordinary citizens to engage in tax avoidance, but not the rich. Just because there’s more money at stake doesn’t make it immoral.”
But that is disputed by campaigners, who point out that not only do lost tax revenues hurt millions of people in the UK, they also hurt millions in countries around the world.
The charity, Christian Aid, has estimated that tax dodging worldwide costs poor countries a massive £100 billion a year. In most cases this will be less than the amount they get in aid from rich countries.
Said the charity’s Rachel Baird: “As in the UK, the result is less money to fund vital public services such as schools, hospitals and justice systems, which in turn affects the millions of people who need them.”
After the protest at Glastonbury U2 played on, seemingly oblivious. In one song, Bono, his trademark wrap-around dark glasses blurred with raindrops, posed a question. “Did I disappoint you,” he sang, “or leave a bad taste in your mouth?”
Tax in numbers
£120 billion: independent estimate of unpaid tax in the UK every year
£42 billion: government estimate of unpaid tax in 2008-09
£81 billion: government cutbacks over next four years
Public spending in 2009-10:
£100 billion: National Health Service
£46 billion: schools
£45 billion: Ministry of Defence
£35 billion: Scotland
£7 billion: overseas aid
Accused of tax dodging
Sir Sean Connery: The James Bond actor born in Edinburgh emigrated to Spain, and then to the Bahamas, allegedly to avoid tax. He says he has paid millions in UK taxes.
Sir Philip Green: The fashion boss whose brands include Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins, has been targeted by protestors claiming that he has avoided paying hundreds of millions of pounds in tax by registering his company in the tax haven of Jersey.
Rod Stewart: The Scottish singer moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s because he was losing 84% of his income in UK taxes.
David Coultard: The former Formula One racing driver and TV pundit from Dumfries lives in Monaco, where he pays less tax than in the UK.
The Rolling Stones: The rock band famously became tax exiles in France in the 1970s, giving the title to their 1972 album, ‘Exile on Main Street’.
Bernie Ecclestone: The Formula one boss has registered his company, Delta Topco, in Jersey, where it pays no tax. Last year the company made £85 million profit.
Vodafone: The mobile phone company has faced protests because it has refused to pay around £6 billion in taxes that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs said was due.
Dave King: A director of Rangers Football Club, he lives in South Africa where he is being pursued by the tax authorities for £250 million in unpaid taxes. He denies the charge.
David Bowie: The glam rock legend moved to Switzerland in 1976, allegedly to avoid paying high taxes in the UK.
Lewis Hamilton: The Formula One champion moved to Switzerland in 2007, reportedly to save tax of over £4 million a year.
Jenson Button: Another Formula One champion, he lives in Monaco where he pays no income tax.
Shirley Bassey: The Welsh singer has lived abroad as a tax exile since the 1960s, currently in Monte Carlo.
Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou: The founder of Easyjet lives in Monaco and has registered his company in Jersey, thereby avoiding paying tax in the UK
Geoffrey Boycott: The Yorkshire cricketing legend moved to Jersey, reportedly to avoid paying tax.
Boris Becker: The German tennis star was convicted of tax evasion in 2002, and forced to pay back £2.7 million.
Willie Nelson: The American country singer was ordered by the US Internal Revenue Service to pay over £10 million in unpaid taxes in 1990, causing him to release an album called ‘The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories?’
David and Frederick Barclay: The owners of the Daily Telegraph live on Brecqhou, one of the Channel Islands, and in the tax haven of Monte Carlo.
Wesley Snipes: The tough-guy actor is currently serving a three-year jail sentence in Pennsylvania for failing to file federal tax returns. He is said to owe £1.7 million in taxes.
Nicholas Cage: The moody American actor was forced to pay off a £9 million tax debt in 2009. He has described his financial state as “catastrophic”.
Paul Hogan: The Crocodile Dundee actor was hit with a demand for £25 million in unpaid taxes when he returned to Australia for his mother’s funeral in August 2010. He denies any wrongdoing.